LL Looks At… The O Shaped Lawyer

EI. EI. 'O'...

December 6, 2020


11 min read

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What’s going on here?

Coming soon to a law firm near you, is a brand new breed of lawyer. One that’s fully equipped with an arsenal of unconventional and previously overlooked “legal” skills, essential for success in a post-Covid world.

The not-so-new skill being deployed is Emotional Intelligence (or “EI”), the ethos of the new lawyer is O Shaped… and the power of this combination is undeniable. 

EI is the new black

EI, also known as Emotional Quotient (or “EQ”), is not new but the growing interest in its potential is. Put simply, EI is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions and the effect they have on others, and to be able to understand and influence the emotions of people around you. Characteristics such as resilience, openness and positivity are becoming defining features of a future workforce.

Companies who tap into this recognised ability see employees as a valuable source for feedback, direction, and leadership. Many are already gaining an edge over the competition. A move to a model based on meaningful, two-way conversations is a concept with huge possibilities… and it is finally going mainstream. Increasing media coverage is fuelling greater awareness of employee EI and its power in the workplace. It is time to see employees for the greatness they provide. 

Big businesses like Ford, the Bank of England and Post Office, right up to CEO level, are already embracing the EI model. They are going to great lengths to show they really care about their workforce. “To their surprise, caring about people made productivity go up, not down.”1 The global pandemic has rebooted the need for close and meaningful employee relations. Companies have started to go to great lengths to show they really care about their workforce. Getting employee “buy-in” or support for new ideas and corporate direction is only possible if you involve them – and take them with you. But this level of support does not happen overnight.

The Emotional Intelligence Consortium is a company on a mission to advance research and practice of EI in organisations. It believes that “self-awareness, optimism, and empathy can enhance satisfaction and productivity at work and in other aspects of life. The workplace is the ideal setting for the promotion of these competencies in adults because work plays a central role in their lives”.2  For organisations who embrace the EI-centred business model, the benefits gained do not stop at the employee.

The more rounded and people-oriented your employees are, the bigger the impact on the bottom line. Valuing your staff for what and who they are is becoming one of the most valuable strategies in the commercial world. In effect, this approach creates “managers” at every level of the business through employee buy-in and mutual appreciation. Together, the two facets create a powerful business proposition.

Recruiting candidates for their EI skills first, and technical ability second, also brings benefits much wider than productivity and profit. Improvements gained include workforce wellbeing, improved staff retention, reduced absence, and a greater commitment all round. 

On top of this, one of the biggest gains from EI-skilled workers is harmony in the workplace. Employees with high EI, benefit those around them. Developing crucial interactions between colleagues, significantly lifting others. 

This effect was confirmed at ground level after a recent poll on LinkedIn asked employees what the most valued trait of their favourite colleague was.3  The clear winner with almost two thirds of the vote was positivity, firmly demonstrating the effect that colleagues have on their co-workers.  And the “feel good factor” does not stop at colleagues. The clients feel the love too.

Using EI skills to manage client relations can bring significant dividends. Close and equal relations with clients ensure problems get solved faster with less friction. Expectations remain realistic and honesty, integrity and mutual respect are commonplace. Problems do not disappear in an EI-based relationship, but the parties will work closer together to find a solution. 

Cliff Lansley is the Co-Owner of the Emotional Intelligence Academy, whose aim is to create the most compelling education institution for the social sciences. As one of the industry’s leading EI experts, he explains why EI does not always get the recognition it deserves. “Unfortunately, the term intelligence has been hijacked by the scholastic system and many people associate smartness with IQ levels. This can mean that IQ, or technical (e.g. legal) qualifications might help us secure a job, but our success in keeping (and progressing) in the job relies on our ability to interact constructively with clients and work colleagues. Much of that relies on our ability to understand and regulate our own emotions, and also to read and understand what others are thinking and feeling so that we can engage and influence them towards our and their goals.”

The new appreciation of these historically poorly-viewed “soft skills” means EI is finally being put at the core of the business. Sectors such as the legal industry, traditionally focused on academics, are slowly starting to see the light. For those early adopters in the sector, the benefits are already being felt. 

The recent major shift in opinion on issues such as mental health and diversity is creating a tidal wave of openness and acceptance – a forced reset of the humanitarian clock. And in some circles, the industry and its employees have become one. Finally, there is a realisation that EI skills in the workplace are a strength, not a weakness. 

Companies are now acutely aware of the corporate value of gaining a reputation for caring about their employees and clients. It not only shows forward-looking leadership, but it also directly leads to tangible business advantage. 

Putting the ‘O’ into legal

One such initiative powering through the fog of “traditional ways” is the O Shaped Lawyer Programme, founded by Dan Kayne, General Counsel at Network Rail. This pioneering group’s mission is to “fundamentally rethink the formation of lawyers, both now and in the future, to allow law firms and their customers to thrive in a rapidly changing legal ecosystem”.

Turning the age-old legal sector ethos on its head, the focus is now on people, then the law. Polly Botsford, a freelance law and current affairs writer agrees, saying “if we used to say ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’, these days you might say, ‘it’s not what you know or who you know, it’s how you make people feel”.4      

“The human element and the ability to connect is so important in our profession,” explains Dan Kayne, “and yet law firms have traditionally struggled with this.” Created by a small group of general counsels from some of the biggest UK businesses, anxious to drive essential reform of the legal industry, the O Shaped Lawyer movement saw the forthcoming introduction of the SQE in 2021 as a unique, one-off moment for change. 

The new SQE training route will offer a flexible alternative to the normal training contract path to qualification, resulting in a richer and wider diversity of candidates coming through the system. With current training contracts in short supply and competition fierce, selection is heavily biased towards IQ. In an acknowledgement that this approach needs to change, the SQE will open the field of legal qualification to a wider and more varied pool of applicants, drawing in the EI skills needed for the future of the sector.      

Carrie Fletcher (a research fellow at the London Business School Leadership Institute) is one of the “O Shaped” pioneers. “I see daily, the value that well-rounded, thoughtful leaders bring to the legal profession – and what is lost when key people skills aren’t valued. Substantive legal skills remain crucial but now, more than ever, I believe we need creative lawyers who can inspire, lead, and collaborate. The O Shaped programme aims to deliver these essential skills to new entrants and to those who are already working in the sector.”

The resulting effect will mean happier and more fulfilled employees in the industry. In a market where job satisfaction is low, such an improvement is welcome.5 Not only for the well-being of employees, but also for creating significantly stronger and more meaningful relations with clients – be that in private practice or in-house.

Mark A. Cohan, CEO of Legal Mosaic (a legal business consultancy) agrees. “The “hard skills” required of lawyers are only part of the expanded oeuvre (or body of work). They must also possess “soft skills” – a misnomer because they are equally as important as hard ones.” Some of the soft skills are personality traits, requiring intuitive recruitment, whilst others can be developed, if permitted and encouraged. 

Historically, law training and recruitment machines have tailored their education to the market, with a firm focus on high IQ and technical skills. But it seems that along the way, something has been lost in translation – the human touch. The O Shaped Lawyer movement is determined to put this critical element back.

Intelligence-focused training

With the meteoric rise in the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the legal sector, law firms are changing fast. Hardly a day goes by without news of a legal tech launch or innovation, but the sheer speed and breadth of this change is already ringing alarm bells in some quarters. 

Machines may do the legwork of many people in a fraction of the time and for a fraction of the cost, but there is a warning for the future here. New technologies can never replace people because they are not people. They might be able to do a huge variety of “human” tasks – but they cannot feel. 

Therefore, the more integrated AI becomes, the greater the need for people. AI is successfully filling one gap but creating another, closer to the other end of the supply chain. The danger is: this is where the client lives. If not introduced carefully, AI could mean goodbye to customer contact. Companies need the right people with the right skill set to bridge the gap. 

Sarah Caroline Sabin (from Entreprenuer.com) says, “With the pace of technology accelerating rapidly, it’s time for us to focus on the aspects of us that make us human, our creativity, empathy, innovation, and awareness. In the workplace of the future, our ability to capitalise upon this, and develop it in others, might ultimately lead to our company’s success or failure”. 

The O Shaped Lawyer Group is already working on a solution. It has turned to the usual training streams to help tailor the education to meet these new challenges. Just as some education establishments have added AI and machine learning modules, EI based-training is also being evaluated. 

Along with AI skills, EI is becoming the “must have” qualification for lawyers of the future. In some areas of the legal sector, it is already viewed as of greater importance than traditional IQ levels. 

EI can be learnt but it helps to start early. Dr. Shawn Andrews (Adjunct Professor of Applied Behavioural Science and Organisation Theory & Management) says “unlike IQ, emotional intelligence improves with age and is something that can be developed over time”.6  Therefore, this area of training is beneficial to all legal employees, irrespective of their position in the chain.

Claire Francis is a commercial law partner at Pinsent Masons. “We work closely with the main law schools that feed our intake, and the more they can do to make [their courses] less academic in focus and more ready for real life practice, the better.”7

Employees create vital, long-term relationships between the business and clients, and that two-way conversation is the clincher, the retainer, the money-maker. But you must have the right people in place for this to happen.

LittleLaw’s Verdict: One size does not fit all…

There is no doubt that AI is here to stay. Law firms are already reaping the benefit of saved costs and time, but the million-dollar question is, can law firms effectively leverage both AI and EI? Only time will tell. One thing is for sure, the demand for greater AI and EI expertise is not going to go away anytime soon.

History has painfully taught us that technologies come and go. What impresses us today, is outdated tomorrow. But we can no longer live without technology. It brings great savings in many ways – but often those savings are merely to drive up profits. If businesses do not use that additional gain to reinvest in their greatest asset, their workforce, it is no worthwhile gain at all. Without a “sunshine today – rain tomorrow” business strategy, no business will survive. What is the use of having all this technology if no one wants to work in the industry and you have no clients to serve?

But it is certainly not all doom and gloom. In the words of Bob Dylan, “Times they are a-changing,” and the legal sector is next… and that in itself, is hugely positive. 

Covid-19 has changed everything. The mental impact of the pandemic is nowhere near fully known, but already the cracks in the health of the nation are starting to show. This crisis comes on top of an industry already suffering from high stress levels and poor staff satisfaction.8 Be they O Shaped or traditional, lawyers are going to need support and understanding in the future. In essence, you could say law firms will need to be O Shaped too. 

With the legal sector steeped in such history, it is not going to be easy to change the habits of a lifetime. There will always be the die-hard legal leaders who really value profit above all else, who will fight for the status quo. But even they will eventually sign up to the concept when the bottom-line benefits start proving themselves. Before long, they too will become O Shaped advocates.

In the meantime, for those forward-thinking companies who want to be pioneering drivers of that change, they will undoubtedly gain the advantage. Once business leaders realise how nurturing and celebrating the people skills many previously disregarded will lead to benefits on every level, EI and O’s place in the commercial world will be assured. After all, great staff are with you for the duration.

With the SQE just on the horizon, the legal sector is already proving its willingness to change. From EI-focused student education to established lawyer re-training, the possibilities are endless. 

This “O Shaped” revolution has started to turn the tide. With some of the most pioneering people and businesses helping make this dream a reality, it will happen. So, next time someone asks you if this is the future of the legal profession, you can say with confidence, “O, it sure is…”

Report written by Denise Atwell

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  1. Cath Bishop and Margaret Heffernan Jacobs, ‘A radical prescription to make work fit for the future’ (Financial Times, 7 September 2020).
  2. Geetu Bharwaney, Reuven Bar-On and Adele McKinlay, ‘EQ and the Bottom Line’, (EI World Limited, 2011)
  3. LinkedIn Poll
  4. Polly Botsford, ‘Why lawyers need to be taught more about emotional intelligence’ (International Bar Association, 3 June 2019)
  5. Legal Cheek, ‘Research: 50% of lawyers dislike their job’ (Legal Cheek, 20 November 2020)
  6. Shawn Andrews, ‘The Business Case for Emotional Intelligence’ (Workforce.com, 18 September 2018)
  7. Sarah Murray, ‘Digital era needs well-rounded lawyers with human insight’ (Financial Times, 2 October 2020)
  8. Max Walters, ‘One in four junior lawyers suffers ‘severe’ stress at work’ (Law Gazette, 10 April 2017)

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