Essential soft skills for lawyers – author Kim Tasso's research findings
22 June 2020
Between August 2019 and March 2020 I analysed information relating to the importance of soft skills within and beyond the legal profession. I interviewed over 20 people from large and small law firms – lawyers and learning & development professionals – as well as psychologists and technologists operating in the legal sector. So I wanted to share some thoughts on essential soft skills for lawyers – research findings.
The full research is included in a 192 page Special Report called Essential soft skills for lawyers - What they are and how to develop them which has now published.
Some key observations on essential soft skills for lawyers
Some of the key observations mentioned in the Special Report are as follows:
Growing importance of soft skills for lawyers
Both the research of existing sources and the interviews revealed that soft skills were becoming increasingly important for lawyers – in their ability to deliver excellent client service, to grow and lead teams and to develop future business. Some of the research indicated that soft skills were even more important than technical and technological skills. There was recognition that soft skills might be a key competitive advantage and that soft skills could be an effective defence against automation.
Importance of emotional intelligence (EQ) for lawyers
The research demonstrates the critical importance of empathy and emotional intelligence for lawyers. Emotional intelligence subsumes many soft skills – particularly in the area of self-awareness, communication, relationship management and conflict management. For this reason, there is a separate section on emotional intelligence for lawyers within the Special Report.
However, whilst some law firms have invested in psychometric tools and other personality and team assessments there were few using emotional intelligence assessments as part of their training and development programmes.
Less structured approach to developing soft skills
Most large law firms have dedicated and sophisticated learning and development resources for the development of technical legal and technology skills. However, often the approach to developing soft skills was less structured.
There appears to be a lack of clarity on what soft skills need to be developed – for example, within competency frameworks. Some firms appear to treat soft skills development as almost a “tick box” training exercise. Beyond those firms who provided case studies it seems that many believe that a short training intervention of a couple of hours can be sufficient to develop the critical and complex soft skills required for modern legal practice.
Variety of soft skills required by lawyers
A wide variety of essential soft skills for lawyers were identified during the research and interviews. In particular:
- Resilience – Several commented on the need for resilience and the ability to recognise and manage stress both personally and for team members. There was a growing commitment to development in this area to support good mental health and well-being.
- Communication – There were many references to the ability to communicate effectively with peers, team members and clients. These ranged from conversational and social skills to managing difficult conversations, networking, providing feedback and active listening. The need for the ability to adapt communication styles for culturally-diverse groups in international work was also mentioned along with differences in communication styles between generations.
- Commerciality - As well as the need for broader commercial knowledge there were several mentions of a need for a more client-centric approach. For example, those interviewed talked about the importance of using empathy (part of emotional intelligence) to see things from the clients’ perspective. Another example pointed to sophisticated selling skills such as the need to add insight and value to all client interactions.
- Critical thinking, problem-solving and collaboration – I had always considered lawyers to be particularly skilled in this area. However, there were concerns that these soft skills were not as developed as they should be. Others commented on the “narrowness” of the legal thinking process and the reluctance to collaborate to co-create solutions. There is a mainstream debate about the relative importance of specialist versus generalist skills (see, for example, the book “Range – How generalists triumph in a specialized world” by David Epstein”).
- Coaching – While there is a wide variety of soft skills development options considered in the Special Report, what was surprising was how many of those interviewed talked about the growing importance of and increased investment in coaching skills. This was achieved both through the use of qualified external coaches but increasingly through developing the coaching skills of lawyers.
- Conflict management – While some mentioned training in managing difficult conversations, others were concerned that managing difference, navigating conflict and negotiation skills were lacking.
- Business development – Many of those interviewed talked about soft skill gaps in the areas of business development – from simple conversational skills, through a reluctance and inability to network effectively and onto other soft skills such as writing, presenting, pitching, selling and relationship management.
The role of digital training
In the Special Report, I look at a wide variety of different methods to develop soft skills. There are case studies showing how some firms and networks have invested in psychometric assessments and a variety of learning methods including traditional workshop approaches.
However, at the time of the research there was a view that whilst digital training was effective for knowledge dissemination it was not a preferred method or effective at developing soft skills. It will be interesting to see how the heavy investment in digital training methods during lock down has changed this view.
Technology vs. human skills
Many law firms are investing in developing the technology skills of their lawyers – particularly with regard to artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation. However, in the research both law firms and their clients recognise the importance of broader skill sets using terms such as T-shaped lawyer, O-shaped lawyer and Trusted Adviser – where soft skills are critical.
A few recognised that excellence in soft skills was essential if lawyers were to robot-proof their futures. This relates to the work of people such as Greg Orme (who wrote The Human Edge) who suggests that our human abilities of consciousness, curiosity, creativity and collaboration were our superpowers in the digital economy.
Further information on Essential Soft Skills for Lawyers
Essential Soft Skills for Lawyers: What They Are and How to Develop Them published with Globe Law and Busines in June 2020.
Law firms which participated in the research included: Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Davitt Jones Bould, Hempsons, Keating Chambers, Law South, LexLeyton, Mundays, Norton Rose Fulbright, Osbornes Law, rhw solicitors. Ropes & Gray, Roythornes and Thomson Snell & Passmore
Other organisations who contributed included: Humantalk, LexisNexis Interaction, PeopleVision, Performance Leader and SJC Consulting.
Related videos on soft skills
What are soft skills? (9 minutes Youtube video)