Tuesday, 4 May 2010

What can we learn from the politicians?

Our colleague Aaron Wood (Wood) has been inspired by the UK General Election to offer some thoughts on what the politicians can teach the solo IP practitioner. He writes:
"Those in the UK know that this week is a momentous week in politics – it is election week, when the general public gets to decide on the future of their country for the next five years. I have had the special pleasure of standing as a candidate for local government, something which I am doing to help improve the area where I live. For a number of months I have been talking to the public on their doorstep, writing local literature in support of my campaign and garnering support from the local community.
Like most of the British public, I have also watched the debates with interest. Interest in the policies, but also interest in the words that they used and the way they presented themselves. I came to wonder, can solo IP practitioners learn from the world of politics? Here are some of my thoughts on the lessons that they show us:
Personal presentation: Each of the main party leaders has presented himself in a way which was congruent with his message. For David Cameron, this was that he is the Prime-Minister-in-waiting, an individual ready to take the reins and lead the country; for Gordon Brown, the look was more of a busy man, a person who has worked hard for the country and wants to continue doing so; for Nick Clegg, a middle ground with colours and presentation slightly discordant with the other two – reflecting his position of being a “different” politician.
Body language and verbal style: The body language of the leaders has been interesting, and there was a view that Clegg was the better person at controlling his body language in the first debate. Clegg’s natural use of the names of questioners and his way of addressing the camera were in contrast with the less natural efforts of the other two leaders. This reflected well with the overall story that Clegg gave of being the leader who understands the public best.
Negative vs. positive policies : The Conservatives have been largely positive in their campaigning, leading to many taking the view that they have not been aggressive enough. Other polls suggest that negative campaigning is a turn-off. Clegg (in the first and third debates) and Brown (in the second debate) jumped upon conflict between the leaders as indicating weakness and as people being like children. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have adopted a more aggressive approach which may or may not be successful across the electorate – an approach which perhaps was needed to try to puncture the perception that the Conservative party was bound to win.
The use of humour: Humour is a wonderful addition – if you are funny. When you build it up and it doesn’t work, it is awful. Each of the leaders has made at least one clunking attempt at humour. According to some of the world’s best humourists, the key is to draw out the humour in the situation, not try to add it in or create it.
What does this all mean for the SOLO IP practitioner? Should we be presidential or approachable (can we be both)? If we’re pitching for work should we always be positive, or is there room for a little bit of negative? Is there room for humour? The answer I think is this – people pick politicians on character. The same is true of advisors – there is an element of professional trust, and an element of relationship.
Clients assume the knowledge and dedication of the advisor and that the administration of the account will be smooth – that is the entry fee to the party. Once that is fulfilled, it’s all open. The growth of the internet, of freer access to legal information has been a game-changer. The large firm has little to add over a niche firm in many IP matters – leaving aside huge patent infringement cases when the ability to call upon a team of corporate associates is seen as a benefit. Most clients want a strong relationship with a small team who will ensure it goes well.
When we hear objections about politicians, we hear that they do not listen to the electorate’s issues – listening and responding to clients is the key. Active listening requires us to watch for reactions – unintentional signs that what we say resonates or grates. By listening and watching, we can be more successful and perhaps we can also break the long monopoly that some clients feel that there are only a few choices".
As ever, readers' comments are welcome. My feeling is that solo and small practitioners have more to learn from dentists than from politicians: know your drill, be painless, focus only on the work that needs to be done -- and make sure your client comes back to you for a check-up before anything urgently needs to be done.


  1. Based on my experience of four Council elections and one parliamentary one, the similarities might be said to lie in the endless round of knocking on doors to try to deliver a message that is not wanted; trying to do your best for people who think that you (like all politicians or lawyers) are only looking out for yourself; and finding in the end that those for whom you have put yourself out can't be bothered to turn out to vote or pay their bill on time, as the case may be.

  2. Good points, but I'd add this: you need to be yourself.

    If you're not a naturally funny person, trying to be amusing mightn't be your best tack.

    Same with how you dress: if you're conservative by nature, there's no point trying to dress flamboyantly, and vice versa.

  3. Nice post Aaron and rest assured no-one should ever compare you to a dentist.

    The temptation for clients is to choose both politicians and lawyers on appearance. In both cases this is extreme folly. Sometimes a charming character and competence go hand in hand but you cannot infer competence from charm. Take references, study their advice, look at who trusts them and test and check all the time.