Knowing what you bring to the table

Bear with me here, this might get a bit cheesy, but I think the message is important. I want to talk about how we get by, working in teams across different disciplines. Because that in itself is an important skill.

So we are going to talk about planning a metaphorical dinner party. The first thing you want to do is decide on your guest list. You want people who will get on well, and have something in common, but will also be sufficiently different in their personalities and interests to not create conflict. Hopefully, this is how we pick the invitees to meetings as well: what everyone should have in common is knowledge of the case at hand, and a desire to achieve a good outcome for that person. If they don’t have that desire, then they are probably in the wrong job (or a family member that you really need to have safeguarding concerns about).

But you also want the people who attend that meeting to have different skills and different expertise, so that you have the best possible chance for achieving a good outcome.

To make sure the dinner party goes well, you want to make sure people have roles. There is no way you can cook everything and be mixing people’s drinks and providing all of the conversation. Besides, if you are talking all night, chances are, no one will want to come back.

Your friends are all kind and considerate people, and they all want to help out. So they all ask what they can bring.

Now you are being asked to allocate roles. And if your friends all know what their strengths are, then they might volunteer for the appropriate roles anyway. For example, one of your friends is an excellent baker, so he volunteers to bring dessert. Another of your friends has great taste in wine, so she offers to bring a selection of bottles for people to enjoy on the night. Lovely.

But if your friends volunteer for things they aren’t actually good at, chances are you’ll be having an unpleasant meal with wine that tastes like vinegar.

The problem that a lot of us experience with this concept is that we aren’t good at identifying the good things about ourselves. If you are one of those people blessed with confidence and self-assurance, then I am happy for you. But that isn’t me. And so it can be difficult to step forward and volunteer skills.

So I tend to look at it from the perspective of the dinner party host, and try to think about what it is they need from me. Being an excellent swimmer is a strength, and something you might be proud of, but isn’t really going to help the dinner party go well (unless that dinner party is being held on a boat, and might capsize, but I think any host that tries to do that probably needs to expect that things might not go smoothly).

Most of the time, my role is clear: I am there to provide legal advice. That is usually what you call a lawyer for.

But it can be more than that, depending on the context. Sometimes my role is primarily to provide reassurance to a practitioner who is feeling uncertain about threats of legal action. To be able to do that, I need to understand how that practitioner is feeling, so I can pick up on any cues that they are giving me, to say they need me to step in. Or I might be there to provide appropriate challenge, asking questions no one has asked or answered yet (“hold on, what legal framework are you using?” being the most common).

And that brings me to the next element of my slightly clumsy metaphor: respecting what other people can also bring to the table. If you have 2 friends who are really good at baking, but one also knows how to make a really tasty starter, you’d expect the 2 to understand that you don’t need 2 desserts (OK I totally need 2 desserts but stay with me). So one of those bakers needs to respect that the other person can also bake, and that too many people with the same role might undermine the success of the dinner party.

And I think this is a part that many colleagues struggle with too. I have to say, some lawyers are quite bad at this. We are prone to wanting to show off how clever we are, by either giving long winded complicated answers, or simply giving our opinion and expecting that to be followed without further explanation.

Generally speaking, when working with a team of professionals (and members of the public, for that matter) neither approach is terribly helpful. I know I keep a black list of independent experts and barristers that I won’t use again because they have fallen into one of those 2 traps (usually because they’ve been too patronising to me or my client, because that really rubs me up the wrong way. Confidence is a strength, arrogance is definitely a weakness). This generally shows a failure to appreciate and respect the skills of others. Often they do have the skills and understanding to want a more detailed answer, but their skills probably aren’t in ‘lawyer-speak’ because that is generally only the remit of a certain type of lawyer.

In truth, if everyone in a meeting knows what they are there to do, and respects and understands what the others are there for, these meetings are much more likely to be successful. In the same way that a dinner party is more enjoyable if everyone who is attending is there to enjoy themselves. Dinner parties can easily be ruined if a guest is there to tout their new business, or contribute to a political campaign.

This ability to adapt to showcase the skills needed is really important in my work. I have learned, for example, that the vast majority of AMHPs want the detail, they want the case law and the grey areas, because that is their interest and their skill. But senior managers tend to want the interaction to be as clear and concise as possible: what are we asking, what are the risks, what are the benefits, and how much will it cost. Frontline social workers and occupational therapists want something different again, generally. They usually come to me panicked and stressed and need me to untangle a problem for them, whilst offering reassurance and encouragement. And I do that for them. Because I don’t know how to be an AMHP, I’d be rubbish as a social worker or occupational therapist and it’s highly unlikely I’ll become a senior manager in local authority.

So by respecting my colleagues, and adapting my approach to the situation, I get a much better response from people, or so I think. Certainly, I have known plenty of professionals who would actively seek me out over colleagues (an occurrence that is both flattering, and one of the reasons why my workload is so intense).

I am not suggesting that everyone should start people pleasing and being in any way false, or insincere. Far from it. But if you enter any interaction with an understanding of what it is you are bringing to the table, and what those around you are bringing, then at least your dinner party won’t involve 3 courses of spaghetti bolognaise and guests shouting over each other to be heard.

Now I’m off, to go eat 2 desserts…

In case it isn’t obvious from the fact I still haven’t identified the authority I work for, the views expressed on this blog are my own opinion and not the opinion of that local authority

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