An important client texts you for advice on a critical decision, apologizing that circumstances don’t permit a better means of communication. You can’t see or hear each other, and time is of the essence. The decision can’t be deferred. A poor choice may condemn the client to a string of negative consequences.
Can you give good counsel solely through short bursts of written words? Remember, hand signals and knowing nods are of no avail. How much does that crimp your style? What do you ask? What do you say?
What if you had to write a script in advance to handle the Q&A for such a scenario, to be executed by a bot? Could you possibly anticipate the issues to explore and the points to make, even if you knew exactly what kind of choice the client would be facing?
Can You Hum a Few Bars?
You’ve probably heard of the game in which someone taps out the rhythm to a familiar song, which nearly always ends with the tapper astonished that others don’t quickly recognize it. The tapper hears the words and melody in his own head, but without those features most others are lost. The tapper overestimates what’s being communicated.
A lot of our attempts to guide someone else’s decision are like that. Both parties may have rich mental models of the considerations in play and the tradeoffs that need to be made, but such models are hard to convey through words and gestures. Even when you’re not limited to text messaging, effective counseling is hard.
When You’re Not the Decider
My previous posts — “Are You a Good Chooser?” and “Choosing to Choose Well” — focused on contexts in which a lawyer is the decider. Much of our work, though, consists of influencing decisions being made by others. Sometimes that is done in a helpful spirit; other times it can be downright manipulative. As colleagues and counselors we have the decider’s interests at heart; as advocates and adversaries we have someone else’s interests (a client’s, our own, a cause we wish to champion) very much in mind.
In a law school course I teach on decision making, each student creates a software application that helps someone make a law-related choice. The idea is to construct an interactive tool that elicits relevant information and preferences and dispenses appropriate guidance. Students use tools like A2J Author, Choiceboxer, HotDocs, Exsys Corvid and QnA Markup.
Building an app that helps someone choose requires understanding the options and considerations that deserve attention, and providing an organized way to work through them. That exercise, in turn, highlights the critical difference between advising others and counseling them. You can suggest what they might care about and why, but only they can say what they do care about.
Despite the limitations of the medium, decision support apps can be quite effective, especially when visualizations are added. The legal world could be well-served by a robust ecosystem of such applications.
Tuning Up Your Skills
How can you enhance your decision-making skills? Keep these key points in mind:
- Most of us are not very adept choosers. And we’re surrounded by people who choose poorly. Realize that. And don’t accept it.
- Choices can be journeys on roads laced with detours or even explosive devices. But there are techniques that make for safer travel. Embrace them!
- As a good start, practice being mindful of how you’re choosing.
- Treat choices as projects that benefit from careful management.
- Make it a point to note the distinctive characteristics of a choice. Who plays what roles in it? What options, factors and perspectives are involved? Get out of your own head by expressing the issues in an external medium or engaging a neutral outsider.
- It’s not enough to be a good chooser yourself. As a counselor and advocate, your mission is to help others choose well. It’s about them, not you. Respect the choosers’ autonomy. Get into their heads. Remember that they may not be singing your tune.
Here’s one last getting-out-of-your-head strategy: When making your own decisions, try thinking how you would counsel yourself if you weren’t you.
The quality of our lives is shaped by the quality of our choices and those of the people around us. Choose to choose well, and to help others do the same.
Marc Lauritsen, author of “The Lawyer’s Guide to Working Smarter with Knowledge Tools,” is President of Capstone Practice Systems and of Legal Systematics. He’s a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and co-chairs the American Bar Association’s eLawyering Task Force. Follow him on Twitter @MarcLauritsen.