How to Build Greater Rapport with Clients

It is believed that there are 5 levels of communication between clients and their advisors (see below). To move to deeper levels of communication you need the skills of building rapport. The more rapport you have the easier it is to be seen as a trusted advisor.

Here are the five levels (diagram courtesy of Flickr):

Level 1: Cliché communication:

This is how a conversation might start with someone you don’t know during the coffee break at a conference. We first establish verbal contact with others by saying something that lets the other person know we acknowledge his or her presence. Standard greetings such as ‘hello – I don’t think we’ve met…’ or ‘hello – I’m Tony…’ signal the desire to initiate a relationship, even if it is a brief, superficial one.

Level 2: Facts and biographical information

During this initial exchange, you might find that the contact might start to reveal safe information about themselves, such as details about their role, where they live, and what work they do.

Level 3: Attitudes and personal thoughts:

After communicating basic information (and probably at subsequent meetings), a potential client might begin talking about slightly riskier things such as what projects they are engaged with at work. Even though the information is not too threatening, we begin to talk about our likes and dislikes.

Level 4: Personal feelings:

After a while a client might move on to share issues that are more personal. After developing deep rapport with someone, they might then share more intimate hopes and fears, secrets, and attitudes about other people. Increasingly, we take risks when we share this information. You will need to be seen as a trusted advisor for a client to share such personal feelings.

Level 5: Peak communication:

This is the ultimate level of disclosure and is seldom reached. Only with our most intimate friends do we reveal such personal information. Peak communication is rare because of the risk and trust involved in being so open and revealing.

If you sense that your clients aren’t opening up to you with their thoughts or feelings about the service they are receiving, you may want to read on…

11 Ways of Building Rapport 

  1. If you are sitting then lean forward, towards the person you are talking to, with hands open and arms and legs uncrossed. This is open body language and will help you and the person you are talking to feel more relaxed.
  1. Give plenty of eye-contact but be careful not to make them feel uncomfortable. When listening, nod and make encouraging sounds and gestures. Smile!
  1. Use the other person’s name early in the conversation. This is not only seen as polite but will also reinforce the name in your mind so you are less likely to forget it!
  1. Ask the other person open questions (eg ‘Tell me about…’). Open questions require more than a yes or no answer. Try to find links between common experiences.
  1. Show that you have really listened and want to understand. Summarise, reflect and clarify back to the other person what you think they have said. This gives opportunity for any misunderstandings to be rectified quickly.
  1. Build on the other person’s ideas and try to co-create something together.
  1. Try to show empathy. Demonstrate that you can understand how the other person feels and can see things from their point of view.
  1. Be non-judgmental towards the other person. Let go of stereotypes and any preconceived ideas you may have about the person.
  1. Admit when you don’t know the answer or have made a mistake. Being honest is always the best tactic, acknowledging mistakes will help to build trust.
  1. Be authentic, with visual and verbal behaviours working together to maximize the impact of your communication.
  1. Offer a compliment, avoid criticism and be polite.

For more on this topic, see

Note: For more on levels of communication, see J Powell J (1998): Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?

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The Knowing-Doing Gap in Law Firms!

What do I mean by the Knowing-Doing gap? Here are a couple of examples:

  1. Most partners know they should be giving regular feedback to associates – praising good efforts and correcting errors. Yet associates tell us repeatedly that they don’t receive as much feedback as they’d like.
  1. Most partners know they should be doing less talking and asking more questions when in selling situations. But the questions just don’t seem to come to mind and the partners end up talking at clients too much.

I attribute the cause of this behaviour to the Knowing-Doing gap.

Lawyers are good at knowing stuff. The emphasis in their legal training has been on gaining knowledge and on sharpening their expertise – there has been significantly less emphasis on developing skills.

But it’s not just training that’s needed. There’s lots of evidence that it’s important to practise – to get the skill ‘into the muscle’, so you can do it without thinking consciously – a bit like how most of us drive our cars. After driving a couple of years, we don’t think ‘now I must push down the clutch’. We just seem to do it!

The skill is not actually ‘in the muscle’ – that’s just a phrase. It’s probably in the hippocampus as well as other areas of the brain, such as Broca’s area.

But that’s enough neuroscience! How do people learn new skills in other fields? They practise! Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, writes about needing 10,000 hours to become an expert (eg The Beatles performed live in Hamburg, Germany over 1,200 times from 1960 to 1964, amassing more than 10,000 hours of playing time).

This need for practice isn’t a job for trainers. It’s more an issue of finding ways of institutionalising the activity in the firm. There is likely to be an important role for those in senior positions (including practice group heads) to oversee this activity, help provide the opportunities for practice and encourage positive feedback.

Then we’ll close the Knowing – Doing gap!

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How Associates Can Cope Better with Stress

Partners will admit that the level of lawyers below them has, in many ways, got the tougher role.

After all, Associates are not yet the masters of their own destiny.

Studies done (see Barry Oshry’s work at suggest that those working at the middle level in organisations are squeezed with pressure from above and below.

The pressures from above in law firms are potentially substantial and include:

  • Partners dishing out work but not briefing properly and setting client-pleasing but unreasonable deadlines (I’ve witnessed a delegation which involved a fat file left on an Associate’s desk with a post-it saying ‘please fix’!)
  • Sometimes too much work given out from multiple sources leaving the Associate with an unclear understanding of competing priorities
  • A lack of clarity as to who is managing which aspects of the matter (eg checking on timesheets to ensure the matter is on budget, providing updates to various stakeholders involved, briefing any specialists in good time, roles in meetings etc)

The challenges from below include:

  • Questions about the matter that can’t be answered (maybe because the partner hasn’t briefed the Associate thoroughly)
  • Juniors preferring to work for more senior people (eg partners) than mid-levels, so saying they are not available to help
  • Poor quality work handed upwards which needs re-doing – possibly caused by poor delegation or there being insufficient clarity as to who is responsible for the output

Any of this happen to you?

Strategies for Being Squeezed

So, what if anything can you do about this? Associates need to push back on these pressures (tactfully!) to relieve the pressures. Associates should request more details from partners about exactly what is required from them, in terms of work product and role.

After a vague and perfunctory briefing in the corridor on an important matter, an Associate might try something like this:

  • ‘When would be a good time to go through this? Have you got a couple of minutes now or would later suit you?’
  • ‘What role would you like me to play in the meeting/call? Would it help if I presented the latest arrangements on the financing of the deal?’

Questions such as these could provide answers which produce less stress on the Associate and should help produce a better quality output for the client.

In terms of managing downwards and relieving stress, here are thoughts which might help:

  • Mid-levels will find more willing support if they are seen as good managers who will help juniors grow. Most lawyers are motivated by a sense of advancement. So it helps if you’re seen as a good mentor. This approach might work particularly well for the Millennials coming up through the organisation.
  • Associates will benefit from more clearly passing on responsibility for the work product to the juniors – they need to feel responsible for getting it right and not hand in a casual draft!

The role of a Mid-level Associate is always going to be challenging, but these approaches should relieve some of the stress and help Associates feel more empowered.

For further articles on career development for Associates, see also:


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Dealing with the Four Leadership Contradictions Facing Mid-Levels

On the leadership programmes I run for various firms, advice is given by representatives of each firm which often appears to be contradictory.

I’m keen to shed light on a potential way forward for mid-levels who may be confused.

Typical career advice is as follows:

On the one hand… On the other hand…
Develop your own style and be authentic Tune into the styles of others and adapt
Develop a specialism, become a ‘go to’ person for something Know more about the wider firm, broaden your outlook
Step up to the plate and take ownership for your work product Don’t be too controlling and delegate work to others
Be more confident and speak up Be open to learning and be humble

I’m sorry to say that I think such advice is correct (even if not that helpful!). It clearly isn’t easy to find the balance in these apparent contradictions. My suggested steps are to:

  1. Observe how your more senior people do it. Look at their demeanour and notice their language.
  2. Keep a little black book to capture your observations and reflections.
  3. You will of course find senior people not getting it right! You can learn from that as well!
  4. Decide which element of leadership you particularly want to work on (eg developing a specialism, delegating/supervising more etc).
  5. Find opportunities to practise and seek feedback on how you’re doing.
  6. Attempt foothills rather than tackle Everest!
  7. When in challenging situations, capture your thoughts and feelings in that little black book to help analyse what might be holding you back.
  8. When reviewing your performance, focus on the positives. Ask yourself, ‘What did I do well?’ and ‘What could I have done differently?’
  9. Whether your firm has a mentoring scheme or not, try to work with the senior people who will offer you the support, challenge and feedback you need.

A leadership mindset (with the concomitant behaviours and skills) doesn’t appear overnight. Don’t beat yourself up if this takes time and you have setbacks. Three steps forward and two steps back is still progress!

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Great Bosses Don’t Tell People What to Do – They Coach!

unprofitableThere’s a simple process for doing great coaching. It’s called the GROW model. GROW is an acronym standing for Goal – Current Reality – Options – Wrap Up. The model is a simple yet powerful framework for structuring a coaching or mentoring session.

A useful metaphor for the GROW model is the plan you might make for an important journey. First, you start with a map: With this, you help your team member decide where they are going (their Goal) and establish where they currently are (their Current Reality). Then you explore various ways (the Options) of making the journey. In the final step (the Wrap Up) you ensure your team member is committed to making the journey and is prepared for the conditions and obstacles they may meet on their way.

Use the following steps to structure a coaching session:

  1. Establish the Goal:

First you must define and agree the goal or outcome to be achieved. You should help your team member define a goal that is specific, measurable and realistic.

In doing this, it is useful to ask questions like “What would you like to achieve?” Follow this up with further questions to clarify the desired outcome.

  1. Examine Current Reality:

Next, ask your team member to describe the situation. This is a very important step: Too often, people try to solve a problem without fully considering their starting point, and often they are missing some of the information they need to solve the problem effectively.

As the team member tells you about his or her situation, the solution may start to emerge.

Useful non-directive questions include:

  • “What is happening now?”
  • “What, who, when, how often?”
  • “What is the effect or result of that?”
  1. Explore the Options (or Consider the Obstacles):

Once you and your team member have explored the Current Reality, it’s time to explore what is possible – meaning, all the many possible options you have for solving the problem. Help your team member generate as many good options as possible, and discuss these.

By all means, offer your own suggestions. But let your team member offer his or hers first, and let him or her do most of the talking.

Typical questions used to establish the options are:

  • “What else could you do?”
  • “What if this or that constraint were removed?”
  • “What are the benefits and downsides of each option?”
  • “What factors will you use to weigh up the options?”
  1. Wrap Up (or Establish the Will):

By examining the Current Reality and exploring the Options, your team member will now have a good idea of how he or she can achieve their Goal. That’s great – but in itself, this may not be enough! So your final step as coach is to get you team member to commit to specific action. In so doing, you will help the team member establish his or her will and motivation.

Useful questions:

  • “So what will you do now, and when?
  • “What could stop you moving forward?”
  • “And how will you overcome it?”
  • “Will this address your goal?”
  • “How likely is this option to succeed?”
  • “What else will you do?”

Don’t be a telling boss – at least not all the time! When you want your team member to feel more empowered and to learn something more deeply, let them GROW! You’ll find it so much easier getting others to want to work for you.

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How to Find Passion in Your Work

passionAsk yourself: How much do you love doing what you do? For most of us there’ll be some bits we really don’t enjoy (admin in my case!), but ideally there’ll be many aspects of our role that make our heart zing!

If that isn’t the case, read on for ways to address any malaise…

One way of finding your perfect role is to start by looking at what I call your marketable assets. Make a list of the projects you’ve been involved with and then look objectively at your experience, skills and network. Answer these six questions honestly:

  1. What experience and knowledge do you have? Summarise the key areas.
  2. What might be missing which, if added to your experience and knowledge, would make you more of a ‘wow’?
  3. What key skills do you have (perhaps commented on in performance reviews) that help you stand out from others?
  4. Where are your personal development needs (ie if addressed would open up exciting new opportunities)?
  5. Who in your network do you know really well, both inside your firm and in the market place – they enjoy working with you and think you’re talented?
  6. Who might you need to get to know better so that new doors might open?

So that’s an audit of you. Then look at the market to assess the attractiveness of the options available to you. Take each aspect of your work and assess the following:

  1. How big is that area of work (score it H=there’s lots of work, M=a medium amount or L=this is a specialist field)?
  2. To what extent is that area of work likely to grow (H= it’s growing, M=static, L=this is in decline)?
  3. How profitable is the work (H=no problem selling at top rates, M=medium or L= lots of discounting required)?
  4. How strategically important are these areas of work to your firm (H=important and there’s likely to be good investment, M=some limited interest, L= no interest)

Then you compare your answers to try to find a match between your experience, skills and network and attractive market opportunities. If you find a match you are well on your way.

But now the big question…how passionate do you feel about focusing your career on developing that work stream? Does the thought of concentrating on such work make your heart zing? I would say you need to score it at least 8 out of 10 on the passion-ometer!

If the area scores less than that, go back to your analysis until you find your heart zinging!

You may find that your passion diminishes in your mid-career period. Maybe there’s just been too much repetition. All you need to do is to repeat this reflection and move on…

If you need to motivate others in your team, have a look at

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David and Goliath – The Potential Advantages of Smaller Firms


goliathIf you find yourself competing against a much larger competitor, be encouraged. They have weaknesses! Just as Goliath did against David!

Part of the challenge for the mega firms is that they don’t easily see their weaknesses.

Consider an analysis of David and Goliath’s apparent strengths and weaknesses, as follows:

David’s strengths – Very brave

David’s weaknesses – Small, inexperienced in one-on-one combat, no armour

Goliath’s strengths – Huge, strong, experienced, good armour and brave

Goliath’s weaknesses -???

Doesn’t look good for David. But the analysis is misleading. The analysis misses several things:

  • David is quick
  • David is good with a catapult (slingshot) and has it with him
  • There are small stones on the ground
  • Goliath’s armour doesn’t cover his forehead

It turns out that you might be like David –  thinking you have apparent weaknesses, but actually with potential strategic advantages.

It’s very difficult for the larger firms to spot their weaknesses – the biggest of which are potentially complacency and poor strategic analysis.

Whether you are a David or Goliath, don’t be complacent about your strategic analysis.

Acknowledgement: The David & Goliath analysis is based on Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. See

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