Developing Your Interpersonal Skills

How can you advance in your chosen career as a Legal Secretary? I am retired now, but when I was practicing law, over a period of very many years I developed a habit with regard to my Legal Secretaries: I encouraged them to act as a team and to see themselves as part of the bigger picture.

What is the bigger picture that a Legal Secretary is part of? It’s obvious, of course: a successful legal practice, or a successful legal department of a commercial firm or public organisation. It does not matter how brilliant a partner or senior manager may be; success will come only if the firm as a whole, from top to bottom, is brilliant. This means that everyone should be singing from the same song sheet. If Legal Secretaries were not important, then firms wouldn’t need to employ them! In their own way, they are just as important as the partners or senior managers.

Keep in mind that everyone has their job to do. Whether you are in a junior or a senior position, the jobs of those below you and of those above you in rank are just as important as yours and your job is just as important as theirs. You are all cogs in the same wheel. So treat everyone in your firm, or in any way connected to it (e.g. clients, people from other firms and public officials) with politeness and courtesy. There is a saying: ‘Manners maketh the man’ - adapted from the motto of Winchester College, which was founded in 1382  so the importance of this goes back a very long way.

No-one operates in a vacuum, and we have to interact with others in our working life. If that interaction is positive, then it is more likely to be successful; and if the interaction is successful, then it is more likely to positively affect the reason for the interaction. The prime rule of thumb for positive interaction, or using another word, ‘dealing’, with other people right across the spectrum, is ‘Treat others as you would wish to be treated by them’. This is known in management circles as ‘The Platinum Rule’. It is a rule that we can find going back thousands of years in religion and philosophy, and it is a very powerful one – just think about it! So let’s have a look at some of the ways that you could effectively interact with everyone connected with your firm or company.

Use positive body language

People can tell how you feel even if you try to hide it, by the way you behave and hold yourself. If you have had a difficult weekend, try and leave any bad feelings behind and come to work with a positive attitude. Similarly, if a colleague or client has done something to frustrate you, try to let it go. It is far easier to perform your work and be helpful when you have a positive attitude. Perhaps you’re right in thinking that this is easier said than done, but everyone has something they can be positive about – it’s just a matter of focusing on it. So, when you are going to work in the car, on the bus or train, or on your bike, think about these positive things. Prepare yourself mentally, and enter your office with a smile on your face. Smiles work wonders for yourself and others. There used to be a very popular song which went, ‘When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you. When you’re laughing, when you’re laughing, the sun comes shining through.’ It’s all part of body language - those unspoken signals that send out messages that are sometimes more important than the words you are speaking. You can do a simple test. When you are walking along the street, try and catch the eye of somebody who is walking towards you, and smile at them – they will almost certainly smile back. Be aware of this in all that you do. People are like radar machines and react more to what they perceive in you when you are talking than to what you actually say.

Be polite and respectful to clients

Always make an effort to get on with your firm’s clients. Some of them may have their faults, or may make unreasonable demands, but nobody is perfect. Never talk about people behind their back, and avoid office gossip. Staying positive is the key to successful workplace interactions, so when you are faced with an angry client – take a deep breath and count to ten. If it is necessary to disagree, do so in a polite and respectful manner. Clients can be difficult at times, but they are your firm’s biggest asset – without clients there would be no firm and your job wouldn’t exist, so bear that in mind at all times. The last thing a firm needs is a dissatisfied client, because that client might tell his or her friends and family, and you never know how many people (possible future clients) your firm might lose because of it. Lawyers sell services rather than goods. If a product is defective, it can be easily replaced. A defective service, or a perceived defective service, has much more serious consequences. Clients can only assess the quality of the service your firm gives by the way it is performed – they cannot touch it, feel it, smell it, or wind it up and see it go, as they can with a commodity! You, as a Legal Secretary, are a very important part of this performance chain. There is, for example, a much greater chance that a client will interact with you than with the senior partner, so make sure you adopt a friendly, positive and professional attitude with them. Imagine a client calls to speak to your boss, who is out of the office, so he or she speaks to you instead. The conversation could go like this:

Client:  ‘I would like to speak to Ms Smith as I have an issue to discuss’.

You:   ‘I’m afraid she is out of the office at the moment. I don’t know when she will be back, so please call again’.

Client: ‘Well, it is very important that I speak with her as soon as possible. I am not very satisfied that I don’t know when that will be.

Alternatively the conversation could go like this: 

Client: ‘I would like to speak to Ms Smith as I have an issue to discuss’.

You: ‘I am very sorry, but she is unavailable this afternoon as she is in court. If it’s important, I can pass a message on to her to try and call you back after court; otherwise she will call you as soon as she is able tomorrow morning. Is that OK?’.

Client: ‘Thank you, I would appreciate that’.

As you can see, the second way of dealing with the situation is much more helpful. The client is aware of the reason why your boss is unavailable and knows when they are likely to get the opportunity to speak to her. This also makes the client feel as though you are looking after them.

Never say ‘No’

Try not to use the word ‘no’ when you are asked to do something. In the world of marketing, saying ‘no’ is a positive no-no! On the other hand, you must never say ‘yes’ and then not honour it. My late wife was a Legal Secretary (that’s how we met), and I remember her telling me that in one of the firms she worked for after we were married, she had to attend the local county court with Counsel, and was specifically asked by her boss to ensure that she took a full shorthand note of one of the parties’ evidence and cross examination. When she returned to the office mid-afternoon she was told by her boss, who was not in a particularly good mood, that he wanted the notes typed up and on his desk before she left for the day. It would have been virtually impossible to do this in the time available, and even more so with the backlog of work that she had on her desk as a result of being away from the office. But she didn’t say ‘no’ or indicate that it was impossible to complete this task. Instead she told him nicely that if it was very important, she was able to work until 6.30 pm and could ensure that the notes were with him in the morning. She made it clear that the other work would be delayed and perhaps it might be best if he were to see whether there were anything which must definitely be done that day. So as you can see, it is good to think of an alternative or solution to something rather than just saying ‘no’.

Admit when you are wrong

Saying a simple ‘sorry’ costs nothing but may go a long way when said at the right time. I shall never forget an incident that happened in my professional life many years ago. I was acting for the husband in a very bitter defended marriage break-up. The woman solicitor representing the wife was an extremely difficult person to deal with – ‘Godzilla’ would have been a good nick-name for her – she resisted absolutely everything and would not give an inch. Rottweilers were like frolicking lambs by comparison. As her attitude rubbed off on me, you can imagine the case was going nowhere fast! The incident in question was a very heated telephone conversation over the matrimonial effects, so heated that I slammed the telephone down on her out of frustration. As soon as I had done this I regretted it. It was rude and unprofessional; she was only doing her job, as I was doing mine, and she most likely thought that I was as awful as I thought she was. I telephoned her straight back and apologised profusely for my bad manners. From that day onward things changed dramatically, and there was normal give and take without discourtesy, which greatly facilitated a fair result in the case. So, remember to admit when you are wrong, as you will reap the benefits. We are all human and make mistakes sometimes. Being honest and open will help colleagues and clients trust you in the future.

Interpersonal skills can benefit your progress as a Legal Secretary. If you are interested in developing those you already have or learning more, take a look at ‘Skills You Need’, which can be found at There are a lot of free resources and information available. You can also take a look at the ‘Professional Development’ area of our Legal Secretary Journal, which has a wealth of articles to help you improve your personal skills.