In 2009, psychologist and MIT professor emeritus Edgar Schein published a book, Helping, that described a general model for effective helping. Schein is widely known for his work in organization development; he wrote the business classic Organization Culture and Leadership (2004).
I reached Schein circuitously. I had retired from the private of law in 2010 and was researching models for teaming, leadership, project management, problem solving, and organizational learning. In one of the better books on leadership in teams, Lateral Leadership, authors Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp distilled their advice down to one piece: “Choose to help.” But what was helping?
The idea lay dormant for a year while I finished a book on effective team performance. Then, during preparation for a short training seminar about consultancy and learning, the relevance of Schein’s ideas to law practice suddenly dawned on me.
Schein’s model is based on the conclusion that helping relationships – and he uses attorney-client relationship as one of his many examples – have a life cycle much like teams. They move from a period of pure inquiry to various roles: the expert, the doctor, and the process consultant. Here is how Schein would see the development of an effective attorney-client relationship.
1. Begin always with a period of pure inquiry. Effective helping begins with readiness. Early in a relationship, perhaps at the stage when many attorneys have initial consultations, there is an imbalance in the social economics. Clients feel “one down,” a feeling that they don’t bring anything of value to the relationship, uncertainty about their ability to influence the outcome, and insecurity about whether their goals will be achieved. The attorney needs to do something to adjust the imbalance in order to build trust. By simply listening to the client’s story, using “humble inquiry” as Schein calls the process strategy at this stage, the client begins to feel like there is a better balance in the relationship just by being heard. That begins the development of trust.
2. Use caution not to fall into the diagnostic trap too early. Experts are more comfortable with the kinds of questions that lead to solutions. Who was at the meeting? When did you meet? What did the other party say? How did the language in that meeting compare to prior email communications? Use of those kinds of diagnostic questions too early may impede the development of the relationship. The attorney is walking a tightrope here, because this also is the time when attorneys are hoping to gain a client. The quality of informed questions is an important factor in a client’s decision, and informed questions tend to be diagnostic.
3. Start with process inquiry and return to it often. Schein uses process inquiry to describe the underlying process of relationship building and problem solving, not a focus on the substance of the problem. For example, the question, “How would you see a successful outcome?,” at the conclusion of an initial consultation turns the focus to the client’s expectation of the process outcome. That question might uncover a discomfort with the unintended consequences of litigation, for example. Occasional questions during the engagement like, “How can we better communicate about the drafts?,” or “How am I doing keeping you informed about the progress of the case?,” turns the focus to the relationship, keeps it in balance as client input is sought, and continues to build trust. These also are the kinds of questions that help a relationship out of the quicksand when it gets bogged down.
Lawyers eventually move into the expert role in writing documents or handling litigation. This may be where the Schein model pauses in its relevance somewhat, because some consultants stay in the process mode throughout. “Clients own the problem” Schein says, but lawyers are paid to solve them. “Don’t give unwanted help,” counsels Schein, but the cost of legal services probably mitigates the risk of over-helping in unwanted ways.
Still, Schein’s emphasis on the importance of process feedback is relevant. So is the inquiry approach to developing the relationship. Attorneys are taught the art of questioning, but not this way. Pure inquiry and the use of real questions are key to fostering development of the relationship. Competency, professionalism and ethics are critical parts of client relationships. But effective helping may be the most important.