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Communication is a two-way street

"Communicate in plain English," is Dr. Maria Pozza's advice. By this, she means making a conscientious effort to listen and understand the person she is talking to and their comprehension of the matter at hand.

Lawyers are often accused of speaking in legalese and failing to remember that most people do not deeply understand complex legislative issues and their ramifications. In fact, legalese has a lot to answer for when it comes to the silo legal teams often find themselves in.

A self-described extrovert, Pozza,  Director and Principal Lawyer at Gravity Lawyers, says that "I get my energy from working with people, be that in a business capacity, with external clients, or in my role as an educator." Pozza's decision to study law was driven by a desire to work with (you guessed it) people.

Being an excellent communicator has worked to her serious advantage in legal roles. She has also honed her communication skills and strategies in her work in the fields of business, risk and compliance as well as education in her roles as a lecturer and disability tutor, gaining knowledge that she believes has assisted her in perfecting the art of communication as a lawyer.

Alongside her legal roles, Pozza is the Director of the University of Otago Foreign Policy School (Outer Space Program), an Adjunct Senior Aviation Lecturer at Massey University, and a tertiary-level disability tutor. She is in a unique position, dealing with students, white-collar workers and those needing expert space advice (niche for sure.) From this experience, Pozza has gained a deep understanding of how to work with all types of people. In other words, she's a master communicator.  

When it comes to communicating, Pozza's strategy is tailored to the level of knowledge her stakeholder has, thus removing the possibility of alienating anybody. She says there are generally three distinct groups of students in a typical lecture theatre (this theory also applies to clients). "There are those people who are sponges and just get things immediately, those who have no clue about what's going on, and the people in the middle who are the vast majority. Communicating across these three different levels at the same time is not easy, but it is necessary."

Pozza says that depending on a persons's knowledge of a topic, each group will require a quite different communication style from her. "As an educator, I make sure to describe things in at least three different ways and repeat myself, not necessarily in succession, but at least three times." She also employs this same method in her work as a legal counsel, especially in stakeholder management.

According to Pozza, effective communication has a fundamental principle. "It's about building awareness about the person you're speaking to and asking yourself how they're receiving the advice you're giving them, and also considering that if I was in their shoes, would I understand what I'm saying?"

In a business context, Pozza assesses the level of awareness and understanding her clients have when discussing legal matters with them. "As a rule of thumb, it’s best to avoid making assumptions. Assume they know little, listen carefully to what it is they are saying, and go from there, even if they are an executive."

Law as a profession is intrinsically based upon communication with stakeholders. For in-house lawyers they are the board, other functions, the internal team, shareholders, suppliers, regulators, financiers, external counsel, competitors and customers. That's an extensive list of people to communicate effectively with, which is why skills such as Pozza's are so valuable.

"If our clients don't understand us, then how can they trust us? Building trust through good communication is a core part of being a lawyer," she says. Why? Because they will withhold information. Pozza points out that clients and business stakeholders need three things from their lawyers in order to build an effective relationship: confidence, trust, and transparency.

The end goal for most in-house counsel is to epitomize the role of a trusted advisor to their business. The Association of Corporate Counsel identifies building trust and good communication as key to achieving this. This means Pozza's way of working is worth emulating. "Communication is the necessary kernel to really make sure our clients trust us and understand what we're saying," she says. Sage advice, indeed.

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