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Embracing human qualities is an increasingly valuable asset in the legal profession and here’s how to hone soft skills in your practice.

Strong client relationships, effective leadership and the ability to influence can be the difference between mediocrity and success in the legal world, yet soft skills like these have traditionally been overlooked in favour of technical ability, industry experience and university credentials. But with automation and digitisation on the rise, and more emphasis on teamwork and collaboration in an increasingly fluid working environment, firms are increasingly looking to cultivate soft skills to shore up future prosperity.

Indeed, a 2017 Deloitte Access Economics Report found soft skill-intensive occupations will account for two-thirds of all jobs by 2030, compared to half of all jobs in 2000. Recent LinkedIn research found communication was the most required skill in job opportunities posted to the platform in June and July 2020 – even though less than one per cent of Australians report having any soft skills on their profiles. 

The good news is that it’s never too late to hone your soft skills or those of your team to better serve clients, colleagues and career trajectories over the next decade. 

Human-to-human contact

Soft skills are the human, interpersonal or people skills that characterise how we engage with others, how we respond to challenges and how we manage emotions. ‘Hard’ skills, on the other hand, pertain to technical, practice-specific knowledge and abilities. According to experts, self-awareness, self-management, teamwork, leadership and empathy are key soft skills for legal professionals. 

“Self-awareness is about understanding your moods and emotions and the effects they have on your behaviour and that of others, and self-management puts that into practice,” says Dr Justine Rogers, senior lecturer at UNSW and deputy director of the Law Society of NSW Future of Law and Innovation in the Profession research stream. “Lawyers deal with people and their problems, and there’s often conflict, hostility and stress, so these skills are really important.” 

Scott Way, director of Industrial and Organisational Psychology at audit and accounting firm BDO, says good team players are willing to listen to and respect alternate views – of both clients and colleagues. 

“One of the challenges in the legal [profession] is that so much of the work is adversarial and sometimes you’ll see that translated into workplaces where it’s all about winning and losing,” he says. “But in order for an organisation to function effectively the emphasis shouldn’t be on winning or losing – it’s about trying to find some sort of agreed outcome.”

Empathy facilitates close bonds and aids communication with clients, and in corporate settings informs effective leadership, explains Ben Deverson, director of legal industry management consultancy Lawganised. 

“Professional services is a market that’s driven by the fact that people buy people, and they work with people they can connect with and engage with at their level,” he says. “When they meet with a lawyer, they don’t want to feel in any way subordinate. 

“And internally, we know leadership styles that are empathetic – where you get to know people, understand what makes them tick and what their vulnerabilities are – are more successful than more traditional top-down leadership styles.”

The ability to innovate, the ability to add commercial value, the ability to think about a client’s industry and provide strategic insights – they’re all predicated on starting with being curious, having a broad outlook and being able to collaborate with colleagues to bring the best of what’s possible to the client.

Asking for more

So important are soft skills among lawyers that they’re increasingly viewed as more critical than technical or occupational aptitude. “Broadly there is an increased awareness of the importance of soft skills across the profession,” says Dr Rogers. “That’s happened over the last few decades with the strong sweep of the consumer movement and increasing client demands. The largest, most powerful clients are demanding the lawyer to be more; not just on top of the technical, but also the human element.”

It’s a trend reflected in hiring practices, says Mary Lyras, chief talent officer at international firm MinterEllison. “When we hire people, we consider whether they can connect with our clients and build enduring, lasting and authentic relationships,” she says. 

“Their technical academics are really important because that’s about the excellence in the work product. But the ability to innovate, the ability to add commercial value, the ability to think about a client’s industry and provide strategic insights – they’re all predicated on starting with being curious, having a broad outlook and being able to collaborate with colleagues to bring the best of what’s possible to the client.”

In fact, Lyras says ‘leadership skills’ is a more accurate descriptor. “As a lawyer you need to be able to inspire confidence, influence outcomes, lead in a volatile world full of uncertainty and build enduring relationships with people from all walks of life. The more time goes on, the more the term ‘soft skills’ doesn’t resonate.”

Dr Rogers agrees a more up-to-date term like “core skills” or “professional capabilities” is more appropriate. “Soft skills can suggest the skills are somehow easier or less important.”

Digital disruption

With advances in technology enabling many routine technical tasks to become automated, firms are increasingly relying on soft skills like critical thinking, emotional judgement and problem-solving skills to understand and analyse the technology and provide a human touchpoint.

“Everything is becoming more automated and lawyers are often required to do a broader scope of work and less of the sort of drudgery that is now being dealt with through automation,” says Mandy Shircore, director of The University of Queensland Pro Bono Centre. 

“There’s certainly a suggestion that over the next decade lawyers will need to establish their soft skills to better serve clients looking more for resolution and innovation rather than just someone who can litigate.”

Lyras says more firms operating globally has increased demand for digital skills, which in turn sharpens the focus on soft skills. “You can’t succeed without them in a world that is continually changing, adapting and demanding speed, quality and value.”

And as artificial intelligence (AI) – computer systems that can ‘think’ and act like humans – becomes more widespread, Dr Rogers says soft skills may even become “central determinants of a lawyer’s success”. 

“AI is coming in pretty rapidly in all sorts of ways – in particular, in discovery and online resolution,” she says. “There are chatbots that dispense legal advice, and AI can do some of the work juniors used to have to do to cut their teeth. What may end up being the thing that is distinct about the lawyer is their human quality, which obviously soft skills are central to.”

Teaching new tricks

While some people have a larger repertoire of soft skills than others, experts agree these competencies can be refined. “There are certainly individuals that are born with an innate quality that allows soft skill development to come far more naturally,” says Deverson. “But at the same time, you can develop and learn by mirroring good people and choosing not to follow what you would consider a poor example of soft skills.”

Joydeep Hor, managing principal at employment law firm People + Culture Strategies, agrees the workplace environment plays a key role in the development of soft skills. “The skill set that a person has is never something that’s static,” he says. “It evolves and looks different, depending on the environment in which they’re in.” Importantly, if an employee or colleague doesn’t exhibit desired soft skills, it may not be because they don’t possess the skills. “It may be that the environment around them has not allowed them to showcase those skills,” says Hor. 

Future focus

So how can managers cultivate a professional environment conducive to soft skills? Research shows an absence of feedback can block career progression, and Way says facilitating coaching and mentoring for both managers and their staff – internally or externally – is an effective strategy for workplaces of all sizes. 

“It’s advantageous for people if they’ve received feedback, perhaps there are some sharp edges there, to try and find a coach or mentor to assist them in softening those edges,” he says. “Try to build a culture that understands and recognises the value of coaching and mentoring in the workplace, particularly for newer staff. You can train anyone to do anything with enough time and resources.”

Shircore suggests focusing on soft skills in professional development plans and programs. “If you have someone who requires development in a particular area, allow them to sit in with managers or perhaps do a training course.”

In much the same way as organisations set KPIs or compile job descriptions, Hor says clear guidelines for desired behaviours can aid the development of soft skills across the organisation.

“If every manager and leader of people in an organisation can be clear in their own mind and at an organizational level what ‘good’ looks like for every person at each point in time, they start to have the foundations of what training, education, guidance and mentoring they need to provide to people,” he says. “You can look for the gaps between what a person is exhibiting and what good looks like in your organisation.”

Dr Rogers says adopting a focus on soft skills can be challenging if your workplace culture has typically centred on hard skills and is competitive and achievement oriented. “The instruction should focus on actual workplace challenges and have some kind of clear goals or clear competencies for people to work on,” she says. “Don’t just say, ‘we’re doing soft skills’. Break it down into what you mean.”

Above all, Lyras says managers who model behaviours like self-awareness, self-management, teamwork, leadership and empathy, and reflect on areas for improvement, are well placed to lead a team proficient in soft skills. 

“Often managers take their own skills and what they’ve learnt over the years for granted,” she says. “Reflect on your own skills and what you bring in interactions with clients. Managers being purposeful and reflective … then taking that step to debrief are some positive steps.”