The hard work of building soft skills
‘Soft’ or ‘people’ skills are as crucial to establishing a legal career as top qualifications or intelligence. The importance of these latter attributes has long been emphasised, but raw legal competence alone is not enough to become a successful lawyer.
Your legal career will depend on your ability to build good relationships. Lawyers need to win clients and keep them, while they also need to accumulate useful contacts and nurture positive relationships with their colleagues and management. This fact may seem straightforward and undeserving of your continued attention, but nearly all of us have at least one weakness, big or small, in our people skills.
Most of us will also have worked with a difficult colleague or manager and seen the effects of poor soft skills first hand. The importance of these attributes is heightened for lawyers, who work under pressure alongside colleagues within a client-facing profession. Even barristers, who often work alone, must be able to sustain good relationships with their clients and the clerks who assign their cases.
Let’s therefore look at the skills that you can’t demonstrate in a written exam, but will need to possess in order to ensure the fulfilment of your legal ambitions.
You will go through many introductions as you pursue your legal career and will need to get off to the best possible start. Not all people enjoy having to speak to strangers in the pressurised setting of a networking event or interview, but approaching the situation in the right frame of mind can help you to overcome any nerves.
If you are worried, just remember that many people will feel the same as you and that no one can actually stare into your soul and ‘see your fear’.
However, people can read your body language, so you need to use this positively to appear friendly and relaxed - resist any nervous urge to overcompensate. When you first meet people, make eye contact and smile, and maintain eye contact when speaking or being spoken to.
If you’re working your way into a group conversation, make sure that you make eye contact with everyone for a couple of seconds each when you are speaking, to include them in what you are saying.
Don’t stand with your arms crossed over your chest - although some people find that this is just a comfortable way to stand, it’s often seen by others as a defensive, closed posture. As a conversation progresses and you get more used to these situations, you will naturally relax, gain confidence and be yourself more.
The key to good written and verbal communication is clarity. People should be able to instantly understand what you are saying or writing, so keep your sentences simple and uncluttered.
Don’t interrupt others when they are speaking to you or your group, and look at the speaker to clearly show that you are paying attention. Don’t just spend the moments when others are talking thinking about what you’re going to say next - try to engage with the points that other people in the conversation are making.
It’s fine to disagree with others, but you should always maintain a high level of courtesy in a formal/professional situation. Therefore, acknowledge the salient aspects of the other person’s argument and make your own points in a positive, constructive way. Also remember to keep colloquial language (eg, ‘cool’, ‘mate’, ‘being a lawyer must smash it’) to a minimum.
When writing, avoid using long, technical terms unless you really know what they mean - many people make the mistake of using obscure words in the wrong context in an attempt to sound intelligent.
The Economist’s much-respected style guide advises that, when writing, you should avoid annoying rhetorical flourishes and try to use the language of everyday speech as much as possible. Again, avoid colloquialisms, worn-out metaphors (for example, ‘making a splash’, ‘turning the tide’ and ‘floating an idea’) and cliched, unnecessary phrases (eg, ‘at the end of the day’ and ‘when all’s said and done’).
It is important to be able to understand and appreciate others’ points of view, both in the social and professional aspects of your burgeoning legal career. Negotiation, conflict resolution and the ability to convince others of your argument’s merits are essential skills in both lawyering and civilian life, and all require empathy. A glance at the Daily Mail shows that empathy does not always come naturally - sometimes it has to be worked at.
This often involves questioning your initial opinion, which is frequently hardened by emotion, and attempting to be calm and objective in the knowledge that we are all imperfect. You should also remember that ridicule or aggression will almost always worsen a disagreement, as has no doubt been proven by your own reactions when that line of argument is employed against you.
Empathy, in short, is good for your career prospects and general happiness. If you are treated unreasonably or inconsiderately by a colleague, friend or manager on occasion, you will find it more useful to reject the urge to become angry in favour of considering the pressures that might be causing that person’s behaviour - very few people are at their best all the time.
This doesn’t mean that you should accept sustained bad treatment by another person, but you may find a more effective resolution with a sympathetic, reasoned response than by drawing battle lines yourself.
Dress appropriately for your environment and remember that it’s fine to ask in advance if you’re unsure of the dress code. If you’re going to be speaking to potential employers, colleagues or clients, it’s usually best to dress smartly and exercise a little restraint. Keep it relatively simple (no hideous over-striped shirt/tie combinations or those coloured shirts with white collars as modelled by drug-addicted stock brokers in the 1980’s, please guys).
And remember Coco Chanel’s advice to always take off the last thing that you put on before leaving the house - unless that was your shoes, of course. If you’re feeling unsure and don’t want to take your sartorial cue from LC.N, ask job-holding friends and relatives for advice on dressing for a professional engagement.
Your clothes, body language, writing and conversation should all contribute to the presentation of yourself as a professional yet approachable, interesting and friendly person with whom others get along. But this will have little lasting effect without a sustained positive attitude in your actions and behaviour, not just your words and looks.
To this end, it’s important to show a willingness to take part in social events and other activities (eg, when starting a training contract or taking part in business development events). This shows that you are not just there to take home your pay, and that you are committed, enthusiastic and not boring (this is important).
An outgoing, positive approach will also help you to forge friendships, which are a great part of working life for their own sake, but can also help to advance your professional aims. You are much more likely to enjoy a happy and collegiate working life, as well as access to exciting opportunities, if you are a liked and respected colleague.
Conversely, a Machiavellian approach will have unintended repercussions for all but the most cunning sociopaths, so refrain from joining in with cliques or cruel gossip. Always remember that the rewards are greater with a proactive, positive approach to your colleagues, your work and achieving your aims.