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Why ‘Soft’ Skills matter

What abilities spring to mind when you imagine the skillset of a successful lawyer? Relevant qualifications from a well-respected institution? An analytical mind, and extensive knowledge of the legal system? The ability to conduct thorough research and present findings concisely?

Skills such as these may well fall within the remit of a typical answer, but so-called ‘soft skills’ can be equally important to establishing and maintaining a successful career in the law. Despite being overlooked on occasion in favour of more easily measurable abilities, these skills can effectively complement their ‘harder’ counterparts, and be hugely useful to career development. So, what are these skills, how can you develop yours?

People skills are professional skills

Defining what constitutes ‘good people skills’ can be a muddy affair, and, although they can’t be objectively measured, when you don’t possess them it’s often readily apparent. For our purposes, ‘soft’ or ‘people’ skills include building and maintaining healthy and productive relationships, effectively and tactfully communicating, and solving problems creatively.

These skills are vital for everything from winning clients, to working with colleagues, to leading a team. Simple as it sounds, when these kinds of skills are lacking serious problems can easily emerge – as you’ll be well aware if you have ever worked alongside a difficult colleague! Below we outline a few soft skills with particular relevance to working in the law, and suggest a few ways to improve them. Like any ability, soft skills must be learned and practised if we’re to truly excel at them, and it’s vital that they are not overlooked.

Communication

Communication is probably the first thing that springs to mind when somebody mentions ‘soft’ skills, but it certainly bears repeating. The ability to effectively communicate with others is the hallmark of a successful worker in almost any industry, so the skill is endlessly transferrable.

The most important thing to bear in mind when considering your communication skills is clarity. The goal of any communication is to transfer ideas and information from person to person; the sooner the recipient of the message understands, the more effectively this can happen. In practice, this means using simple, concise sentences when writing, making sure you proofread your work every time.

Avoid using complex vocabulary unless it’s necessary, and be sure you’re using it in the right context. Also avoid colloquialisms, and unnecessary clichés. If you’re unsure whether someone else would instantly understand you, ask a friend or colleague to read what you’ve written first. Writing concisely is a skill which takes time to develop, and the best way to improve is to take on feedback and keep practising.

When communicating verbally, the goal is the same but your methods will, of course, be somewhat different. Speak concisely, and try to stay on track without meandering off onto a tangent. When listening to others, do not interrupt, and be sure to maintain eye contact so they know you’re paying attention. Try to link your own points to what has been discussed by others, to ensure the conversation progresses logically, and let people know that you were actually listening. It’s also important to maintain a polite and professional demeanour – even when you’re disagreeing with someone. Acknowledge their point before constructively explaining why you don’t agree with them. In a professional context, it’s also best to avoid colloquial language wherever possible.

Meeting new people

Whatever your professional role, chances are you’ll encounter a whole host of unfamiliar faces over the course of your career. For better or worse, first impressions are important, and being able to get them right is a highly valuable skill. Whether you’re meeting a client for the first time, greeting a new colleague, or making connections at a networking event, making a great first impression will help new people to trust and respect you.

Understandably, the prospect of meeting and conversing with strangers is enough to induce anxiety in many of us, which can severely impact how we actually come across. Fortunately, as you practise meeting new people, these nerves tend to dissipate, making it far easier to win people over. Do remember that other people are often subject to this kind of anxiety as you; your first impression of someone is just as important as their first impression of you.

When trying to make a good first impression, body language is vital. Only so much can be communicated by words, which is why humans have developed a system of bodily indicators to convey the rest. When someone is speaking to you, maintain eye contact to ensure they know you’re listening. When speaking, do the same – in groups, you’ll need to hold each listener’s eye for a few seconds at a time, to ensure they all feel included in the conversation. It’s also a good idea to avoid crossing your arms in front of your body, as this is considered a ‘closed’ posture, suggesting you are not open to what others are saying. Finally, try to relax! Conversations are always more comfortable for everyone involved when they feel natural and unforced.

Empathising with others

Empathy is bound up with communication and the ability to foster new relationships, but it’s also worth mentioning in its own right. To empathise is to understand and appreciate the feelings and viewpoints of others. This is an incredibly useful skill for any role which involves interacting with other people. It can be hugely helpful when it comes to negotiating, presenting a cohesive and persuasive argument, and resolving conflicts, as well as being equally useful to your personal and professional lives. Like any skill, empathy does not necessarily come naturally; this means that anyone can work on being more empathic.

Working on your empathic abilities generally means trying to maintain some sort of objective distance, and being able to calmly question your own views. It’s also important to avoid lashing out with aggressive, emotionally-motivated responses when encountering someone whose views differ from yours, since this will worsen the dispute in most cases. Instead, consider why the other person thinks or feels the way they do – this will often involve an open but tactful conversation, helping you to bridge the gap between your opinions and find a suitable outcome. Of course, you should not have to put up with aggression or rudeness in the workplace, but approaching disagreements objectively and making an effort to understand where a person is coming from is well worth practising for a successful career.

Dress for success

The old adage, ‘dress for success’, has acquired some negative connotations. It sometimes implies the damaging message that a person should radically alter their appearance in order to be successful. Nonetheless, the idea of ‘dressing for success’ does retain some usefulness in the modern workplace.

No one should be forced into donning an outfit that makes them uncomfortable, but the way we dress and present ourselves does has a significant impact on how we are perceived, both at work and in our private lives. Most workplaces will have some sort of dress code, and if you’re unsure about any aspect of it, it’s always better to ask; employers will respect your effort to present yourself in the best possible light. However formal, maintaining good personal hygiene is a simple but effective way to present yourself as a respectful, polite, and professional individual. Dressing smartly doesn’t have to mean purchasing expensive clothes, or spending hours getting ready – it’s just a way of presenting yourself professionally which can vastly improve your relationships at work.

Maintaining a professional attitude

Taking a positive attitude towards your work means not being afraid to get involved – participating in social events, for instance, or befriending a new colleague. It should also involve a healthy work ethic which balances putting forward your best effort with taking time for self-care. Burnout is an ever-present threat in a profession as stressful as law, and taking care of yourself is a great way to stay motivated and offer your best performance. If you find your motivation waning, work out what got you motivated to pursue your current career in the first place. Remembering this can give you a much needed boost, and help maintain a positive outlook.

Successfully developing your soft skills is about more than just the way you present yourself. Without a genuinely positive and friendly attitude to back it up, a professional appearance is simply an empty shell. Placing greater emphasis on soft skills can be a great way to even out your professional development, and reach your goals.

 

If you have the soft skills, then we have the jobs for you.  Contact Law Consultants today.

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