While your technical skills may get your foot in the door, but its your people skills that keeps the doors wide open. Your work ethic, your attitude, your communication skills, your emotional intelligence and a whole host of other personal attributes are the business skills that are crucial for career success.
With business skills you can excel as a leader; problem solving, delegating, motivating, and team building are all much easier if you have good business skills. Assuming that soft skills are universal leads to much frustration. That’s why it’s so important to focus as much on soft skills training and development as you do on traditional hard skills.
The problem is, the importance of these “soft” skills is often undervalued, and there is far less training provided for them than hard skills. For some reason, organisations seem to expect people to know how to behave on the job. They tend to assume that everyone knows and understands the importance of being on time, taking initiative, being friendly, and producing high quality work.
A firm that makes client service a priority will remain successful. How to accomplish this? It should be innate, and yet, as mentioned, communication is still the number one complaint. Given that so many people have access to and contact with clients in a law firm on a daily basis, law firms must stop taking “soft skills” for granted, and start placing a higher value on teaching and attaining those skills.
Let’s therefore look at the skills that you can’t demonstrate in a written exam, but will need to possess in order to ensure the fulfilment of your legal ambitions.
You will go through many introductions as you pursue your legal career and will need to get off to the best possible start. Not all people enjoy having to speak to strangers in the pressurised setting of a networking event or interview, but approaching the situation in the right frame of mind can help you to overcome any nerves.
People can read your body language, so you need to use this positively to appear friendly and relaxed – resist any nervous urge to overcompensate. When you first meet people, make eye contact and smile, and maintain eye contact when speaking or being spoken to.
If you’re working your way into a group conversation, make sure that you make eye contact with everyone for a couple of seconds each when you are speaking. Don’t stand with your arms crossed over your chest – although some people find that this is just a comfortable way to stand, it’s often seen by others as closed body language. As conversation progresses and you get more used to these situations, you will naturally relax, gain confidence and be yourself more.
The key to good communication (written or verbally) is simplicity. People should be able to instantly understand what you are saying or writing, so keep your sentences simple and uncluttered. Don’t interrupt others when they are speaking to you or your group, and look at the speaker to clearly show that you are paying attention. Don’t just spend the moments when others are talking thinking about what you want to say; try to engage with the points that other people in the conversation are making.
It’s fine to disagree with others, but you should always maintain a high level of courtesy. Acknowledge the salient aspects of the other person’s argument and make your own points in a positive, constructive way. Also remember to keep colloquial language (e.g. “cool”, “mate”, “being a lawyer must smash it”) to a minimum.
Empathy, in short, is good for your career prospects and general happiness. If you are treated unreasonably or inconsiderately by a colleague, friend or manager on occasion, you will find it more useful to reject the urge to become angry in favour of considering the pressures that might be causing that person’s behaviour – very few people are at their best all the time. This doesn’t mean that you should accept sustained bad treatment by another person, but you may find a more effective resolution with a sympathetic, reasoned response than by drawing battle lines yourself.
It is important to be able to understand and appreciate others’ points of view, both in the social and professional aspects of your legal career. Negotiation, conflict resolution and the ability to convince others of your argument’s merits are essential skills in both lawyering and civilian life, and all require empathy. You should also remember that ridicule or aggression will almost always worsen a disagreement, as has no doubt been proven by your own reactions when that line of argument is employed against you.
Dress professionally for your workplace and remember that it’s fine to ask in advance if you’re unsure of the dress code. If you’re going to be speaking to potential employers, colleagues or clients, it’s best to dress smartly and exercise a little restraint. Keep it relatively simple. If you’re feeling unsure, ask your wiser friends and relatives for advice on dressing for a professional engagement.
Your clothes, body language, writing and conversation should all contribute to the presentation of yourself as a professional, yet approachable, interesting and friendly person with whom others get along. But this will have little lasting effect without a sustained positive attitude in your actions and behaviour, not just your words and looks. To this end, it’s important to show a willingness to take part in social events and other activities (e.g. when starting a training contract or taking part in business development events). This shows that you are not just there to take home your pay check and that you are committed, enthusiastic and not boring.
An outgoing, positive approach will also help you to forge friendships and business relationships, which are a great part of working life for their own sake, but can also help to advance your professional aims. You are much more likely to enjoy a happy and congenial working life, as well as have access to exciting opportunities, if you are a liked and respected colleague. Conversely, a Machiavellian approach will have repercussions, so refrain from joining in with cliques or cruel gossip. Always remember that the rewards are greater with a proactive, positive approach to your colleagues, your work and achieving your aims.
About the Author
Jannette Brimm is the trainer and owner of Skillsology Ltd, a company that specialises in delivering business skills training to lawyers to enable them to meet their regulatory SRA competency learning and development needs. Janette’s career has spanned 32 years, 5 years of which has been working in the retail sector and 27 years in the legal sector.