Law: Why solicitors are joining the TA: An American system could teach British lawyers to communicate more effectively with clients and colleagues. Sharon Wallach reports

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The Independent Online
A SYSTEM for improving communication and understanding of human behaviour would not go amiss in many a solicitors' office, some may say. And that is what Abe Wagner has come to Britain from the United States to recommend.

Mr Wagner, who used to practise as a psychotherapist, now uses a system called transactional analysis (TA), as well as neuro-linguistic programming, in his work as a management trainer.

At least two big City practices have shown interest in his training methods. On his first visit to Britain last September, Kerry-Jane Joseph, the legal training officer at Nabarro Nathanson, attended one of his seminars. And this week, the training manager of another 'top 20' firm was in attendance, although the firm declined to be named.

'We're very interested in developing skills for our lawyers to enable them to communicate effectively with clients and colleagues,' Ms Joseph says. The Wagner methods fit in well with training already undertaken by her firm; for instance, in teaching skills for negotiating and interviewing clients, and the company's internal appraisal system.

'There is a common link between communication skills techniques and a person's behaviour,' Ms Joseph says. 'TA embraces a number of concepts that seek to explain behaviour, and behaviour is crucial in helping or hindering relationships with other people.'

Ms Joseph has used the techniques with a team of partners, fee earners and trainees from the firm's company department. And so has Nick Williams, a management trainer who organised Mr Wagner's visit to the UK, with a group of Nabarro trainees.

'It's too early to have had any feedback from the trainees yet, but the idea was well received,' Ms Joseph says. 'TA is still a new idea in this country, and it's all fairly tentative. I present the idea as part of other communication skills concepts.'

She was, she says, very impressed with Mr Wagner. 'He's excellent at presenting ideas that at first sight look complicated. He had many examples up his sleeve, which is the trick in explaining TA, particularly to lawyers who like to see how something applies to them.

'It's a question of adapting to your audience. TA is a great introduction to understanding how people behave, and how our behaviour causes others to behave.'

Mr Wagner acknowledges that TA techniques cannot be learnt overnight. 'It's no different from spending a day with me to learn tennis,' he says. 'But if you're willing to practise, you get good.'

Mr Williams, who runs a company called Personal & Professional Development, emphasises that, because books and other information about the techniques are readily available, it is essential to check on a potential trainer's accreditation. 'TA got a bad name in the Seventies,' he says. 'It became a fad, and a lot of untrained people used it.'

Now more and more of the larger law firms are showing interest in people skills training, Mr Williams says. Clients are beginning to ask about the teams that will do their work for them, and the firms are taking notice.

And not before time, according to Mr Wagner. 'When you train a lawyer, do you train him in people skills? No. When he becomes a partner, do you train him in management skills? No.' The professions all train their recruits in technical skills, not people management. 'They expect you to know that through the grace of God,' he says.

Solicitors resist the idea of being trained, he says. The trick, therefore, is to find a label that works: 'professional development' is better received than training. 'And they don't like to be told what to do, so we have to persuade them that the ideas we are putting across are their own.'

It is high time that lawyers come round to accepting that they need people skills training, Mr Wagner says. 'They do need to do a better job, both with their employees and with their clients. They are like doctors who know their medicine but don't have a bedside manner.'

He puts equal weight on the importance of relationships with clients and colleagues. 'To be tuned in to the client, you need to be tuned in to your colleagues.'

Lawyers like the ideas he teaches because they are down-to-earth, practical, and teach them how to motivate, how to talk and listen, how to be blatantly honest, how to build teams.

'There is a lot of focus on the importance of the team,' he says. 'You need to get the individual to be open, to share. If people know they are appreciated, then you get results. Feeding off one another invites synergism, creates energy.'

Mr Williams says that support staff should not be neglected in the training process. 'Clients get their first impressions of a firm from the support staff. But they often feel undervalued; that they are treated as a resource rather than people who could be part of the team.'

One method of creating successful communication, which Mr Wagner touches on in passing, involves adopting the other person's mannerisms: the breathing patterns, say, or a crossed-leg stance. (This leads to hurriedly uncrossed legs and self-conscious breathing for a beat or two.) If this smacks of manipulation, it shouldn't, says Mr Wagner. 'If this 'mirroring' behaviour is used purely for one's own ends, it doesn't work in the long run.'

Many lawyers don't realise that they need to continue the learning process beyond the initial seminar, Mr Williams says. 'They attend the session and think, 'I know that now'. But it is an ongoing educational process, a gradual conscious shift.' Mr Wagner adds that it is widely accepted that changing organisational behaviour takes about two years.

So far, no barristers have come to Mr Wagner's seminars or to Mr Williams's company. This may be because they already have good people skills, Mr Wagner suggests. 'TA merely quantifies what effective communicators do already.'

Those interested in bettering their people skills in the latest series of seminars include several local councils, two government departments and a school.

They may have been reading Mr Wagner's testimonials from American clients. Miriam Mason, of the 1990 American Association of Matrimonial Lawyers, wrote: 'Abe's presentation is the only continuing legal education programme I know of where more people were attending after the coffee break than before.'

And another satisfied client demanded: 'Get him again or clone him]'

(Photograph omitted)

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