I had lunch recently with a partner of a Big Four accounting firm, a conversation that was illuminating less for what he said than for how he said it.
Whenever he talked about his work and objectives, it was always based on the firm’s work and objectives. When he spoke about future plans, competitive strengths and long-term strategies, it was within the context of the firm’s plans, strengths and strategies; his own expertise was important insofar as it contributed to and reinforced them. Most of all, he used the first-person plural far more often than the first-person singular. Lots of “we,” not much “I.” It was simply the way he was used to thinking.
Contrast that with the way many lawyers usually talk. They refer to the law firm not as the strategic core of their work, but as a beneficial platform or vehicle for what they do. The firm’s attributes are important for how they support the lawyer’s personal focus and expertise, rather than the other way around. And as I’m sure you know, the first-person singular crops up far more frequently than the plural version. The lawyer comes first and everyone else comes second.
My Suggestion Today Is This: Practice the Art of “We”
I don’t mean it for the pure solo who works entirely alone—referring to oneself as “we” is good for the royal and the deranged, but not for anyone else. For the rest of the profession, however—from a partner in a global firm to a solo with assistants and paralegals—developing the art of “we” is appropriate, advisable and wise.
Here’s Who “We” Is Good For
Your clients. “We” reminds them that you’re a valued member of a professional collective, and they take comfort in the strength that comes from numbers. “We” informs them that what you provide is delivered in the context of a powerful support system that will be there for them even if you’re not available.
Your colleagues. Whether it’s the secretary who opens your mail every day, the junior lawyer who’s trying to earn and learn from you at the same time, or the partner who’s thrown her lot and reputation in with you, “we” sends a relentlessly positive message: This is a team effort, everyone has something to contribute, and we’re in this, win or lose, together. Never underestimate the power of a motivated, valued team.
You. We in the law are notoriously inward-looking, and our habits of self-promotion and self-reliance can lead us down many dark paths. Lawyers with troubled lives and deteriorating careers often tried to do too much themselves and either forgot, or neglected, their support systems. Doing it all yourself is vainglorious, dangerous and counterproductive.
Make a habit each day of thinking in terms of “we,” “our” and “us,” rather than “I,” “mine” and “me.” Then speak the terms out loud, practicing if you need to. Finally, act on them.
Make “we” real. Make it your professional core.
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