How the science of persuasion impacts the legal profession

legal professional persuasion

It is undeniable that lawyers and other legal professionals rely heavily on persuasion. In fact, some lawyers refer to persuasion as an art form. But the person many people consider the foremost authority on this subject thinks that persuasion is actually a science. 

Robert Cialdini is a professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University. His “Six Principles of Persuasion,” are the subject of numerous articlesblogs, and online courses. Given his prominence in his field–and the relevance of persuasion for our industry–we thought it might be interesting to see how each concept can be applied in the modern law office.  

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#1 Reciprocity 

Cialdini’s first principle of persuasion is reciprocity. It is the age-old notion that if I do something nice for you, you’re more likely to do something nice for me. While this practice doesn’t work in all legal circles – say, doing something for a judge in expectation of a favorable ruling – it has a lot of practical application. 

For example, extending kindness to your co-workers just might pay-off when you’re seeking help with a last-minute deadline. Likewise, extending minor concessions to opposing counsel might persuade her to ease up in contract negotiations. The possibilities are real and could make a big difference in the short and long term.  

#2 Scarcity 

As Cialdini explains it, “People want more of those things they can have less of.” In some respects, this is simple supply-and-demand. The less there is of a given resource, the more people want it. 

In a law firm, this concept could be leveraged in a variety of ways. For instance, if the firm notices that lunchtime MCLE courses are poorly attended, it might cut the number of courses available by two-thirds. Chances are, the remaining courses will be full of eager (and hungry) students. 

#3 Authority 

According to Cialdini, people are more likely to do what you want them to do if you have an air of authority. This factor plays out easily in the law firm setting.  

A paralegal who wants more work from partners, for example, might start paying more attention to dressing professionally (even in casual offices). Alternatively, he might study up on local rules or another area of the law that is currently impacting his team. Then, by speaking confidently when the issue arises, he increases his credibility on the topic and increases his value to the team. His overall professionalism can persuade them to trust him with more assignments. 

#4 Commitment and consistency 

This principle is based on the idea that people act consistently with things that have done previously. Cialdini instructs that once people have voluntarily done something for you in the past, they are more easily influenced to do similar things in the future. He explains, “the detective of influence looks for voluntary, active, and public commitments and ideally gets those commitments in writing.” 

This principle could be used effectively in team meetings by partners needing to delegate work. The scene might look something like this: “Mike [associate], you did a great job on that client memo last week. Can I get you to finish off the brief to the court by Friday?” When Mike responds affirmatively in front of the team and writes his deadline on a project whiteboard, the partner has effectively persuaded Mike to perform.  

#5 Consensus 

When people are unsure how to act, according to Cialdini, they are likely to act according to how others around them are acting. This factor is particularly true when trying to persuade judges! Lawyers recognize this principle as stare decisis – or making legal decisions according to precedent. 

It is also true in other settings, however, as people generally tend to follow what people around them are doing. Indeed, law firm salaries are often based on this notion. Once top firms start bumping (or lowering) salaries, other similarly sized firms are sure to follow. So, if you want to persuade your boss that you’re worthy of a raise, show her that other firms are giving people in your position raises. 

#6 Liking 

The final principle of persuasion is this: people tend to do things for people they like.  

So, be kind to people. Hold the door. Tell them they look nice. Let them have the last cookie. Any lawyer who has ever taken a deposition will tell you that witnesses open up a lot more during questioning when you’ve simply exchanged pleasantries with them beforehand.  

Luckily, this factor is the easiest to implement and may just yield the greatest results. Science, after all, tells us so. 

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