Publish date: 13 April 2023
Travis Schultz walking down a pathway

To me, the two greatest mysteries surrounding the legal profession are; why is it that law firms promote lawyers to leadership roles because of proven technical skills rather than leadership attributes, and why is it that law faculties across our universities create pedagogies that overlook the most fundamental of lawyer skills – negotiation? Surely the skill is more pertinent to practice than theoretical subjects that are seldom used in practice. How is Maritime Law or Animal Law more relevant than resolution dialogue strategy? It seems so counter-intuitive to me but it’s 2023 and it’s still happening. 

 I recently wrote an in-house training module on negotiation theory and strategies for lawyers, and while doing so, found myself describing attributes of effective negotiators that were largely the same as those I’d described when writing a module on what makes great leaders. And it got me wondering, is it a co-incidence, or do good negotiators naturally make great leaders? And is it the case that the so called “soft skills”, are not so soft in the armoury of talented leaders and effective conciliators? 

In no order of priority, here are ten of the overlapping characteristics and skills described in both leadership and negotiating texts:  

  1. They think deeply – as strong strategic planners they have a vision, often one that others can’t see or perceive. 
  1. They articulate clearly – and have strong communication, charm, and exude confidence and gravitas. Often their mellifluous tone captures the audience and commands engagement. 
  1. They listen to understand – call it active listening or empathetic information gathering, they ask questions and seek a deep understanding before proffering an opinion or making a statement of position. 
  1. They build trust – and are credible, reliable and behave in a way that builds confidence that they will do what they say. Trust is the foundation which gives leaders the morale authority to lead, and the platform from which negotiators can gain concessions that work towards a mutually acceptable resolution. 
  1. They think big picture – great leaders seem to innately hold a world view despite having a limited sphere of influence, while good negotiators also see the bigger picture – both are mindful of the impact that their actions or decisions can have more widely than the immediate situation. 
  1. They admit to mistakes – and are realists. There may be exceptions to this rule in the case of some that force their way into positions of power, but in many organisations, the trusted and effective leaders admit to shortcomings, just as good negotiators admit to their own mistakes in order to build rapport. 
  1. They know their impact – in both leadership and negotiation, those with emotional intelligence can take the temperature of the room. Those with these sensory powers have an enormous advantage over others who are tone-deaf to the impact that their words, actions, attitude, or approach are having. 
  1. They are quick thinking – their ability to recognise a need for strategic re-direction in real time is invaluable; especially when coupled with visionary skills. 
  1. They know patience – both realise that there are times to pause and moments to strike. Impetuous and impulsive behaviours have no place on their CV. 
  1. They respect – no-one wants to negotiate with, or be led by, an egomaniac. Being respectful of cultural, personal, situational, and emotional differences is key to building trust, establishing rapport, and solidifying the relationships that are central to the success of both leaders and negotiators. 

Some academics and researchers suggest that a lot of these skills are simply in the DNA of some fortunate folks, but even if it doesn’t come easily, can we help our future leaders and emerging negotiators do better? Perhaps it’s time that our universities included a mandatory subject on negotiation skills and strategy rather than just ADR? And perhaps in law firms, it’s time that those with strong negotiating skills are promoted to leadership roles, rather than the egotists and prima-donnas who have historically billed the most? 

As published in Lawyer Weekly, My Weekly Preview, Australian Lawyers Alliance and Hearsay.

Travis Schultz
Travis Schultz
Managing Partner
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