3 September 2018

The road to success is paved with coffee

I’ve been working on a formula to predict career trajectory.

At the moment, it looks something like this:



(Number of coffee* catch ups with colleagues)

(Number of emails sent) x (Average response time)

* tea is an acceptable substitute, wine is even better, and lunch takes it up another level altogether

It may not be mathematically sound, but the underlying point is valid: the more we actually talk with our colleagues, the more value we provide over our career.

I’ve worked with some truly exceptional colleagues in my time, and one characteristic I’ve consistently noticed is the balance they strike between communication, relationships and technical ability.

Of course, the perfect ratio depends on the job in question. Different jobs sit at different points on a spectrum:

skills spectrum

This applies across all professions, but the ‘softer’ side of the scale has been overlooked in more ‘conservative’ functions like legal.

The average inbox

I’d hazard a guess that your average in-house lawyer’s inbox is slanted heavily towards ‘non-traditional’ work items – things like the company’s proposed new cloud storage platform, or discussions around projects that are over budget and off schedule.

Questions around data governance, risk and crisis handling, project management and client relationships – these are all primarily functions of business’ trust in the lawyer’s breadth and a strong connection between the lawyer and the business.

They also demonstrate the breadth of skills expected of lawyers in the modern business world, only a relatively limited portion of which are ‘traditional’ legal skills.

Playing nice: acquiring the ‘soft skills’ that are really hard

Another aspect that is becoming increasingly apparent to me is that there’s a difference between being right and being useful. And it’s much harder to be useful than to be right.

Traditionally risk-averse lawyers really struggle with this concept. Advice is couched in ‘it depends’, ‘if x then y’, and other hedges to ensure that, regardless of the ultimate outcome, they can say they were right. There’s enough wriggle room to fit an elephant.

But the reality is that business is built on informed risk-taking. If advisers aren’t informed, they can’t inform the business. If advice doesn’t take a leap based on an accepted risk position, the business can’t act on it with confidence.

Sitting alone in your office, you’ll never get a grasp of your company’s appetite for risk, or why it varies from project to project.

Nor will you understand imperatives around timetables, product design or customer response. You can only build intuition around the issues that really matter to your business from spending time with your internal clients.

There’s no substitute for getting out there and understanding the business, the people driving it, and how they roll. There’s no substitute for reaching beyond the screen, making time for the face-to-face, asking questions beyond the strict scope of your responsibility, and paying attention to the answer.

It’s hard to do, for something we call a ‘soft’ skill.

Technology assisted intuition

What do ‘soft’ skills have to do with technology in the workplace? It’s tempting to think of technology as just another tool to give us more time to do other things (as we’ve written about for the Australian Legal Technology Association.

But technology is fundamentally ingrained in the operations of every business. Of course, the day-to-day benefits to your particular department are important, but exceptional advisers also understand what this means for the competing priorities of their organization.

So when your company looks at a new cloud platform, you’ll already have a good feeling for how you and your colleagues are going to use it. You know the right questions to ask around data security, privacy and uptime. And that’s what the business will expect.

What they will see as extra value is your ability to understand the goals, concerns and drivers of other departments, to measure your advice accordingly, and to communicate it in an effective way.

At Lexico, we’re working hard on the technology of document automation and autonomous processes.

When it comes to translating that technology into something relevant, concrete and valuable for your business, we know we just can’t compete with your regular catch up with colleagues over a hard-earned coffee.