The Hard Work of Developing “Soft Skills”

Amy L. Drushal
Leadership skills are some of the most overlooked abilities necessary to be a good lawyer.

Leadership skills are some of the most overlooked abilities necessary to be a good lawyer.

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The ABA Journal published an article by Susan Smith Blakely titled “Law Firms Shouldn’t Overlook Value in Soft Skills,” encouraging law firms to assist young lawyers in developing “soft skills” to increase their value. Here are a few suggestions for how young lawyers can do just that.

Improve Your Communication Skills (By Using Your Voice)

Stop with the email! Talk to people! Everyone’s inboxes are flooded with emails these days. Pick up the phone and call your colleague, client, or opposing counsel. More problems can be discussed and resolved through a 10-minute phone call than by exchanging 30 emails. Further, communicating directly with people will help you develop how you deal one-on-one with challenging situations. When confronted with a question, you need to learn how to think on your feet and answer, rather than sitting behind your computer thoughtfully crafting an email. Depending on the situation, tone and delivery are critical. If you must deliver bad news to a client, it’s much better having a conversation about that news in real-time; preferably in person. Yes, email is an easier way, but it’s not the best way to communicate.

How Professional Do You Need to Be?

As lawyers, we are “professionals,” but that doesn’t mean you can’t inject humor or emotion into particular situations. As a lawyer, more often than not, you deal with human problems. Take off the serious, “professional,” lawyer hat. Listen to your client. Talk to your client about things other than the matter you are handling for him or her. Be nice to opposing counsel and try to develop a relationship that is not merely as “opposing parties.” Be empathetic, be funny, be yourself . . . be human.

Find a Mentor

Everyone needs mentors. You don’t need a formal structure or program. You simply need someone to talk to—someone who has been where you seek to go. If you are a litigator who wants to do trial work, find a partner you can work with or talk to about cases, experiences, and how to try cases. If you are a solo practitioner, find another seasoned solo lawyer to meet with who can assist you with issues unique to your practice, to serve as a sounding board, and to be a referral source. If you are at a law firm, find a partner who can educate you about office politics, procedures, and the like so that you can better understand how the firm works, as well as how to deal with matters such as promotions and salary issues. And don’t stop at one mentor. All lawyers have unique experiences, stories, and tips, and most lawyers like to share their experience and knowledge.

Step Up and Lead

Leadership skills are some of the most overlooked abilities necessary to be a good lawyer. Being a lawyer is more than giving advice, doing research, and drafting documents. You must be a leader. If you are a trial lawyer, you have to be able to lead your trial team. If you are a corporate lawyer, you need to be able to manage a team to get deals done. If you are a real estate lawyer, you have to direct a team to get a transaction closed. Some people have natural leadership skills. Some don’t. Some leadership skills develop over time as you gain more experience, but you also can develop skills by volunteering your time and energy. The easiest is to get involved in your firm or with an industry or legal organization. Volunteer for committees, chair positions, or projects with a bar association or other volunteer organizations. If your firm has committees or groups, participate, volunteer to take part and lead a project, or join a committee.

Learn How to Handle Criticism

We all love positive feedback—what’s not to love? But, we don’t improve without constructive criticism. And, if you can’t accept criticism, people will stop giving you feedback altogether. My favorite and least favorite question to ask my colleagues is “what could I have done better?” I don’t necessarily want to hear what I did wrong, but I want to know how I can improve. Learn how to ask for criticism, how to accept negative feedback, and how to use it to grow.

Build a Network

Everyone will tell you practicing law is “not like it used to be” in terms of developing work. Business development is hard work, and law firms are focusing on business development and marketing more than ever. Firms are also getting their younger lawyers engaged in business development earlier than before. “Networking” in the traditional sense isn’t for everyone. But, you can develop your own successful network without being at cocktail parties every night. Start thinking about your goals for business development. How do you want to network? What do you like to do? What are your interests within the law and outside of it? Who are the types of people you enjoy being around? Who are your potential clients or people who could connect you to clients? Get involved in those activities and with those people, and your network will begin to grow.

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Law Practice Today. Law Practice Today is published by the ABA Law Practice Division.

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Amy L. Drushal is a shareholder with Trenam Law in Tampa, Florida.