6 Ways to Treat Your Colleagues Like Your Best Clients — and 6 Reasons to Do It

I recently had coffee with a friend who was venting her frustration about working with another attorney I knew. I pointed out that this attorney is beloved and admired by his clients. My friend immediately shot back, “Oh, yes, he treats his clients very well, but he’s a monster to his team!”

It’s noteworthy how often I encounter this dynamic in my work coaching law firm attorneys and leaders: great producers who connect meaningfully with their clients, but devolve into rudeness or difficulty when dealing with staff and junior attorneys. Whether you’re already a senior partner or just starting your career, it’s worth remembering that interpersonal skills are just as crucial to success as winning cases, closing deals or landing new matters.

Effective use of interpersonal skills matters as much with colleagues as it does with clients. In fact, my research has shown that having strong interpersonal skills is the foundational element of being a great leader.

If you’re practicing law in a law firm, you’ve probably cultivated your ability to treat clients well and regard it as fundamental to good business development practices. But if you want to really succeed — to leverage your effectiveness by ensuring you have strong, loyal teams ready to work on your matters — treat your colleagues as you do your valued clients.

Here are six crucial client-facing skills that should also be used with colleagues:

Skill 1. Be responsive and accessible

In the same way that you respond to clients’ needs in a timely manner, get back to your colleagues’ requests with due haste. This not only builds mutual respect, but also helps your entire firm run more smoothly: people perform better when they get the information and guidance they need without delay.

If your response to a colleague must be delayed, consider at least acknowledging your colleague’s inquiry right away and letting them know when you will respond more substantively. Alternatively, you might find it useful to deputize a trusted colleague who may, from time to time, provide colleagues with responses during times when you’re unavailable.

Skill 2. Build genuine relationships

When you get to know your clients and understand them, including their lives beyond work, you cement bonds that sustain lasting relationships — and create loyal clients. The same is true with your colleagues. By taking a genuine interest in them, you create a valuable long-term relationship that eases collaboration and reduces costly turnover.

Allow opportunities for colleagues to speak with you about issues beyond specific matters at hand, and express curiosity about their career goals and interests. Doing so will not only enable you to develop stronger ties with colleagues but provide you with insights about their strengths and areas of interest. Genuine relationships are rooted in empathy — understanding other people’s points of view. When you strive to see things through your colleagues’ eyes, you build genuine connections that matter.

Skill 3. Add value

Doing excellent work for your clients is fundamental to long-term success. Effective business developers go beyond the basics and proactively add more value — solving problems, making connections, illuminating the big picture, looking holistically at clients’ needs. When you take this same approach with your colleagues, a host of benefits follow: you nurture talent in junior attorneys, cultivate trust and loyalty, deepen your bench strength and build a better team.

In any interaction, take a moment to ask yourself, “How can my presence here add value?” This may be as simple as remaining patient and accessible for questions or sharing the broader context in which a particular matter arises. It’s striking how much this means to more junior attorneys.

Skill 4. Have their best interests at heart

Your clients trust you because you look out for their best interests; they know you will always advocate on their behalf. If your colleagues believe the same about you, they’ll become loyal and valuable collaborators.

When junior attorneys and staff know that you wouldn’t ask them to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself, you create an atmosphere of trust and collegiality. When they know you’ll handle their mistakes constructively, they feel that you have their backs. Kindness is indeed key: you demonstrate respect when you’re considerate of your colleagues’ needs and act with generosity. The more respect you demonstrate for your colleagues, the more loyal they’ll become.

Skill 5. Foster open communication

When you talk with your clients, you listen closely to their needs, welcome their ideas and exhibit the qualities of a great communicator: self-aware, engaged, enthusiastic, creative, courteous and respectful. And it turns out that these exact characteristics describe the successful working environment in top-performing teams.

When you communicate with your colleagues the way you do with your clients, you build a team that supports your success while creating a productive, collegial work environment for everyone. And when it comes to communication, it will behoove you to remember the old adage: “Listen more than you speak.” Active listening skills are the foundation of excellent communication.

Skill 6. Validate their needs

When your clients tell you what they need, you listen, understand where they’re coming from and affirm their values. This is the basis for trust and working toward the same goal. Turning that attitude toward your colleagues creates successful collaboration.

Take time to explain what you’re doing and why it matters. Welcome colleagues’ questions, acknowledge and validate their needs and demonstrate your awareness of their contributions — you’ll create a team that pulls together to meet your goals.

This approach may sound simple, but it’s easy to let these fundamentals be overtaken by the stress of executing the work — and billing hours — day to day. I’ve heard from attorneys who find client-facing work exhausting; they just don’t think they have the energy to “turn on the charm” with staff or coworkers. And I’ve talked with senior partners who perceive that their seniority simply makes it awkward to meaningfully connect with more junior attorneys.

But if you think of the client as the only audience for your collegiality, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity to further your success. Treating your colleagues as well as you treat your best clients is rife with benefits for you and your firm.

Here are six benefits worth considering:

Benefit 1. You develop a team of people who actually want to work with you

Law firm work can be hard: the pressure to meet deadlines and bill hours can feel unrelenting. Leaders who foster collegiality promote loyalty and inspire others to want to work with them, while those who don’t find themselves searching for attorneys to work on their matters. Some of the most successful law firm partners and senior attorneys are the ones who consistently inspire a desire to collaborate.

Benefit 2. You create a support network for times when you really need one

When the inevitable client emergencies, weekend work and fire-drill situations happen, you need a team who will step up and enthusiastically jump in to meet the challenge. And eventually you’ll take a vacation, get sick or have a family emergency. If you’ve treated your team well, they’ll gladly rally on your behalf when times are tough.

Benefit 3. You nurture talent and morale

When junior attorneys feel respected and supported, they’re more likely to learn, grow, remain engaged, become more valuable to your organization — and to stay. Your investment in your colleagues promotes stable teams and reduces turnover. Your value as a mentor grows, and morale, which supports efficiency and profitability, goes up. If you’re a senior attorney or firm leader, the effect of your leadership approach sets the tone for your team, your practice group, your office and, thus, your firm as a whole.

Benefit 4. You build an admirable legacy

Your career is more than the sum of the high stakes matters on which you’ve worked, the list of impressive clients you’ve landed or the value of your assets. A career in law is an opportunity to build something larger than yourself — a group, an institution, the careers of other people. How you’ve treated your colleagues profoundly influences how you’ll be remembered.

Benefit 5. You can be more productive –and profitable

Strong interpersonal skills and effective mentoring is the new norm. These skills are expected if you want to continue to advance your career. Supervisors with the best team- and project-management skills attract the best and most loyal attorneys, something that, in turn, frees them up to land more clients.

In addition, because the quality of supervisor-supervisee relationships has a direct impact on retention and engagement, some firms measure (e.g., through upward reviews) supervisors’ successes. Firms may sometimes even reduce the compensation of attorneys whose behavior inspires high attrition rates and who consistently receive especially negative feedback about their interpersonal skills from junior colleagues. Being your best self in the office isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s smart for your bottom line.

Benefit 6. You wind up with a more enjoyable working environment

Work is just more pleasant when you care about the people you work with and they care about you in return. It’s easier to collaborate and get the information you need, and everyone enjoys the feeling of coming together to deliver excellent work. When you treat your colleagues like your best clients, they return the favor — and everyone wins.