When the time comes to find your first summer internship or permanent legal position, the way you relate to people will be absolutely critical.
In an article in The Complete Lawyer entitled “Critical Relationship Building Skills For Associates”, lawyer and consultant Arnie Herz argues that in the transition “from backpack to briefcase,” associates must develop new skills. In law school, he says, “Intelligence is king.” But in the real world of legal practice, “Relationships are king—healthy and lasting business relationships with clients, partners, team members and opposing counsel. Intelligence, although necessary, plays a supporting role in making these human connections.”
Similarly, when Paul Bunge listed “Fifteen Rules For Winning as a Junior Associate”, his Rule Number One was “be nice to people.” It starts with the senior lawyers who control your career and your workday. The customer is always right. From the perspective of junior associates, the most important customer is the lawyer who supervises your work. And being nice to other lawyers is just the beginning, Bunge says. Associates also need to develop strong working relationships with “secretaries, paralegals, clerks, court reporters, bailiffs and other support personnel... you need them more than they need you.”
And if the only thing you know about your first job is that you need one, consider the advice of Richard Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute?, the best-selling job-hunting book in history: “The most important thing [people] can do is get out there and do some informational interviewing, face to face and not with employers (initially) but with those people actually doing the jobs that they find attractive.” This is not only research, it is marketing.
What you should do today
If people have never been your long suit, buy a copy of Dale Carnegie’s classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Admittedly, the title sounds a little dopey. I avoided reading the book until just a few years ago, although I had spent several decades getting a Ph.D. in psychology, teaching courses, and even writing a few psychology textbooks.
But I learned more about people from Carnegie’s book than from all those academic studies combined. He does not offer magical secrets or brand new insights, and an awful lot of it sounds like common sense. But the book got me thinking in new ways about my own relationships, by pulling me in with stories, examples, and basic principles.
I’ve convinced a few lawyers to read it, and they’ve been equally enthusiastic. One grizzled senior partner told me, “This book changed my life.” He was only half kidding. Another said that he keeps it in the table next to his bed for night time reading.
For most lawyers, I think Carnegie’s most important advice is: “Never criticize, condemn, or complain.” Trying to get people to change by criticizing them is like trying to teach a pig to whistle: it doesn't work and it annoys the pig.
Other folksy suggestions from Carnegie include:
- Become genuinely interested in people, and show it.
- Address people by name.
- Encourage others to talk about themselves.
- Learn what other people are interested in, and talk about it.
- Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely.
After you’ve read a chapter or two, put the book down and try it out.
Start by getting to know a few more of your law school classmates. In five years, all will have interesting stories, and many of you will be able to do favors for each other. In twenty-five years, you will collectively be ruling the world, and the favors will get bigger. As long as you start building stronger relationships today.