How do legal professionals stand out in today’s competitive legal talent pool? Do they achieve academic excellence? Possess superior legal skills? Are they the top billers at their law firms? These are all important considerations, but may not be enough to set a candidate apart from the competition. In today’s legal market, more and more emphasis is being placed on the acquisition of soft skills.

1.     Essential Soft Skills and Why They Matter

Soft skills have become one of the most used buzzwords in today’s business world, defined as interpersonal skills, social skills, communication skills, and leadership capabilities. At ZSA, our consultants have increasingly noticed that certain soft skills truly separate the good applicants from the superstars!

Leadership Skills

“Leadership skills matter. Any long term success, especially when moving into partnership, will involve building a team and knowing how to motivate and work closely with associates and support staff. Lawyers, in the first few years of practice, tend to focus on becoming a strong biller, to what can sometimes feel like the exclusion of virtually everything else. However, being a strong biller is not the only criteria for promotion at the vast majority of law firms. Knowing how to be an effective leader should never be underestimated,” says Mike Race, Client Partner with ZSA. “Leadership is also important in terms of your client base. To build a sustainable set of client relationships, you want to position yourself as the expert in your field who can lead clients’ business in the right direction, listen carefully and provide guidance, rather than reactively follow clients’ instructions.” Race further adds that at a more granular level, leadership skills include relationship building, effective communication, teamwork, delegation, negotiation, and service orientation.

Relationship Building Skills

Amrit Rai, ZSA’s Recruitment Consultant, advises that “effective communication and relationship building skills are key to building one’s practice, cementing relationship with team members and clients, and understanding the needs of those around you.”

Race agrees on the importance of relationship building skills and advises that a more senior lawyer’s value, both internally within the firm or on the open market, is very much tied to his/her client relationships. “The stronger these relationships are, the more trust your clients will have in you to do more of their work and to become their strategic legal advisors. Further, the stronger your book of business is, the more power you have to guide your career.”

It’s Simple; Be Nice!

Travis Usher, a Recruitment Consultant with ZSA, suggests that one of the main soft skills a lawyer needs is, to quote Patrick Swayze from Road House, to just “be nice”. “Being nice is an outgrowth of self-awareness, politeness, and professionalism. But what it really comes down to is just being kind to your colleagues, fellow lawyers, and everyone you interact with in a given day,” says Usher. “Lawyers especially can fall victim to their egos and start to buy into their own hype; while not immediately so, this is detrimental to a career, and can be a huge impediment when looking for a new opportunity.”

Usher suggests that “being nice” first requires the self-awareness of knowing that one’s past interactions with colleagues and network have been deficient. “Once you have realized the problem, just start treating people around you better. It takes zero extra energy to be kind to those around you, and the benefit accrues to you more than anyone else,” says Usher.

2.     How to Develop and Improve Soft Skills

Many law firms continue to train their lawyers and staff on how to further develop their careers. “A lot of the larger law firms have professional learning and development co-ordinators and internal programs in place. Even small firms will occasionally invite external providers to come in and give seminars on soft skills, or at least will support lawyers taking the initiative to attend external courses. As such, an easy way for you to develop and improve your soft skills is simply to find out what your firm offers and get involved,” says Race. “But a better approach is to proactively push for these opportunities. You can attend external courses or seminars or look into individual career coaching, which can help identify the particular soft skills that you need to be focusing on the most, and then take a personalized approach to addressing these.” Race further adds that “you can let your firms know what external programs you have been pursuing in the sense that at best they may be willing to cover some of the cost, but even if not, it sends them the message that you are serious about your career.”

3.     You can master it!

It’s your career, so be proactive! “It is important for young lawyers to take responsibility for their own career success. Moreover, the earlier a lawyer can start ingraining and reinforcing these soft skills, the better,” Race admits.

Soft skills separate the adequate legal professionals from the superstars. In today’s competitive legal job market, employers prefer candidates with more than just good marks, technical skills, and experience. Go out there, take courses or speak to one of our consultants – they can help guide you.  After all, we want to see you succeed and progress in the career of your choice!