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Litigation Journal

Fall 2022 | Work

The Case for Soft Skills

Paige Gentry and Ellen Gilley


  • A professional-relationships skills gap, particularly among new lawyers, motivated the creation of a course for law students.
The Case for Soft Skills
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What is the most challenging aspect of your work as a lawyer? Do you feel that you have had the right training to tackle it?

These questions inevitably surface during discussions with our peers. Rarely does anyone point to a legal topic as the most challenging aspect of his or her work. Rather, the answer typically involves navigating some professional relationship: working on a team, building consensus, resolving conflict, fostering champions, or managing the expectations of clients or senior partners. Despite the identification of professional relationships as a consistent and key practice challenge, little training is focused on building the “human” or “soft” skills necessary to meet it. This problematic skills gap, particularly among new lawyers, motivated us to develop a course for law students focused purely on these critical competencies.

For the last four years, we have taught a half-credit course at Duke Law School during the “Wintersession” week. With only six hours to spend with the students over the course of two days, our goal is to give students dedicated, structured time to explore questions involved in managing and working with people and to offer scenarios and case studies to practice these skills.

To develop the course, we started by speaking to business school faculty who specialize in teaching management courses. Who better to learn from than people who have spent their careers studying management, leadership, and communication? We also drew inspiration from our own experiences in the legal field, from “lunch and learns” presented to more senior attorneys and from the literature on leadership and soft skills for professionals.

Our curriculum changes each year as we continue to learn and find new approaches, but the primary skills and competencies we target remain the same: communication, teamwork, and feedback. We chose these skills because, on a daily basis, they are applicable to the practice of law, regardless of seniority. Understanding your own communication style and the communication style of others helps to structure interactions and exchanges in a productive way and avoid miscommunication. Communication style is also a critical component of successfully managing those more junior to you and “managing up” to senior attorneys and clients. By understanding their communication style and adapting your own to theirs, you can work together more efficiently. By studying effective teams, we can learn how to foster a dynamic that generates ideas, encourages participation from all members, and leads to better results. Learning how to both give and receive feedback is critical to resolving conflict and ensuring future progress.

For us, the section on teamwork is the defining part of the course. Using an exercise developed by Professor Victor H. Vroom of the Yale School of Management, students are told that they have experienced a natural disaster and must determine which items—from a provided list—are most critical to their survival. First, they approach this task individually, ranking the items alone. Then they come together in groups of four to six and, as a team, decide on the ranking of the same items. There are no rules or suggestions on how to complete this ranking, only the instruction that they must—as a team—arrive at a decision and record the whole process on video. What took 2 to 4 minutes as an individual exercise takes about 45 minutes in a group. The individual and group rankings are then compared against the rankings of experts.

The goal of the case study is to have the students realize that teams, more often than not, perform better than the individual, as they draw on collective knowledge. While this alone is insightful, the most impactful part of the session occurs when each team watches the video of its group process and then debriefs its discussion. It’s here that the learning about how we each individually communicate and interact with others plays out. In one debrief, a participant said that she was too nervous to advocate for her approach during the exercise, but in the discussion of the expert solutions, her individual rankings were actually better than many of her teammates’. She extrapolated this to her work, where often she does not have the confidence to provide a different opinion or perspective. Another participant noticed herself interrupting others, directing the conversation, and leaving little space for disagreement—and, at times, foreclosing better solutions. The takeaway was to find ways to listen more and speak less. Others identified the successful tactics of their teammates: how individuals who did not want to lead the conversation added significant value by summarizing the discussion, organizing the possible rankings, and reminding the team of the ultimate goal. The participants saw themselves and how they work in teams in a new light.

Managing interpersonal dynamics will remain one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of litigation practice or any legal practice. Relationships are complex, and it is critical to invest time, energy, and intention into creating an environment where diversity is encouraged, differing opinions can be raised, people can learn, and conflicts can be resolved. Our goal is for lawyers to be better equipped with the skills necessary to navigate these relationships and to be effective team members, managers, and leaders.