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5 important soft skills for legal professionals and how to develop them

By Tina De Maere  – February 14, 2024

The whole world exists of tensions and contradictions: day exists only because night does, warmth exists because of coldness and sadness because of happiness. 

We’re not the ones who came up with this theory; the Greek philosopher Heraclitus did. Even though he lived in the 6th century B.C., his philosophical views still hold today and can even be transferred to the workplace.

Take, for instance, the difference between soft and hard skills. Hard skills, like one’s education and theoretical knowledge, can only be usefully applied in collaboration with a set of so-called ‘soft skills’, like time management, communication or technical competences. Without soft skills, hard skills become completely ineffective and vice versa. Just like in Heraclitus’ theorem, both ‘forces’ need each other, in this case to form a strong, communicative and well-informed legal professional.

In this blog, we will explain:

– what soft skills are and why they should matter to you

– which soft skills every legal professional should necessarily learn 

– how you can acquire and develop these skills even more.

What are soft skills?

Contrary to hard skills, soft skills are abilities that don’t refer to your theoretical or technical knowledge (“what you know”), but more to your practical capabilities and own nature (“who you are”). 

Soft skills could best be described as a set of overarching character traits that essentially reveal who you are as a person. Since soft skills have little or nothing to do with your degree or educational background, they can easily be transferred from one job or domain to another.

Soft skills are of course not only important in the legal profession, but define how well your career will advance in any sector or field. 

Nonetheless, some competences are especially important for legal interim managers and consultants. In the next paragraph, we will explain why this is the case, before discussing the most prominent ones.

Why are soft skills important for legal professionals?

Whether you are a legal counsel, legal interim manager or an attorney, soft skills will always be an indispensable part of your professional repertoire. Without soft skills, your hard skills become virtually useless. 

Take, for instance, a lawyer with the highest possible degree of theoretical knowledge. How can he ever transfer this knowledge – and thus make actual use of his hard skills in practice – without a basic instinct for empathy or human communication? In this example, interpersonal capabilities form the necessary foundation for applying and developing all other capacities.

When applying for promotions as an in-house lawyer or for new assignments as a legal consultant, or when trying to become a partner at a law firm, your soft skills will also play a vital role. 

Opportunities on the legal market are always scarce and employers and clients have a wide range of options to choose from: hire an external counsel, pick someone from another department, look for a temporary solution etc. 

Competition can be harsh and when taking the final decision, rather than looking at the theoretical knowledge every legal professional has acquired in law school, employers and clients will examine if and how you’re able to put your hard skills into practice and apply your legal knowledge in particular situations. This is where your soft skills will be tested.

In conclusion: soft skills form the basis on which hard skills can be practised. 

The most important soft skills for legal professionals

1. Communication

As a legal professional, you must be able to explain your legal advice to both lawyers and the business/internal clients. When, for example, advising a company on their contract templates or their marketing strategy, you’ll have to communicate a lot with different departments like marketing, sales or HR. This also means that you’ll come into contact with people who don’t have a legal background on a regular basis.

Being able to communicate effectively and, more importantly, to explain complex legal matters to a lay audience, is thus a key skill for every legal consultant. It is the foundation on which all other soft skills are built. 

If you’ve mastered this ability, don’t forget to showcase this by using a clear and well-written resume and delivering a strong job interview. All these elements will put you in the top drawer of many a potential client.

Don’t forget that your communication skills include both your writing skills and your ability to communicate orally.

2. Negotiation 

As a lawyer or legal advisor, you’ll not only be asked to review contracts or draft them from scratch, but you’ll likely also be involved in the negotiation procedures of legal agreements. Therefore, negotiation skills also form an essential part of every legal professionals’ “soft skill repertoire”. 

In line with the previous section, negotiation skills include the ability to communicate the needs of your company or client clearly and precisely, but also the capacity to listen well and understand the desires of both your principal and those of the opposing party.Not developing your negotiation skills can be a huge drawback when applying for legal interim assignments, in-house promotions or positions at law firms. On the other hand, being able to add the successful negotiation of a high-value contract for one of your clients to your resume can be a stepping stone to other interesting freelance or permanent missions.

3. Time Management

Time management is not so much about working hard or staying late as it is about doing the right things at the right time. 

As a legal professional, you will almost exclusively come into contact with enterprises or clients that try to cope with an excessive amount of work. A textbook example would be a legal department needing to replace an employee who is pregnant or sick or who has quit the company permanently, creating an unmanageable workload for the remaining lawyers.

As a consequence, it’s important for legal interim managers and other legal advisors to possess the ability to know which tasks require an instant solution and which tasks can be tackled at a later time. Typically, you won’t be able to complete every assignment that is given to you within the expected timeframe, but this should not necessarily be a problem as long as the most important things get done first. Setting your priorities straight and feeling which problems must be solved primarily is a key skill for every legal professional.

As always, communicating well with superior management and colleagues will often be a necessary requirement to help you create a priority checklist. This once again proves why communication is such an important soft skill.

4. Interpersonal Skills

Interpersonal skills or “people skills” are an unmissable asset in today’s legal profession. People skills include the capacity to work in a team, the ability to show empathy and – once again – the capability to communicate and listen well.

As stated above, legal professionals nowadays are way more involved in the business than traditional solicitors. They have to understand the ins and outs of a company’s culture perfectly and must be able to adapt their language and advice to different recipients. Tailoring opinions to the needs, wishes and strategies of the business, too, should be a priority. That’s why teamwork, empathy and – most importantly – patience are must-haves in a business context. 

If you’re not capable of listening and showing understanding as a legal consultant, it will be impossible for you to thrive in any legal department or company.

5. Legal Tech

Last but not least, the evolutions in legal tech and artificial intelligence are inescapable and are leading to huge transformations in the legal sphere. Rather than ignoring these developments and continuing on the same path, legal advisors should embrace these new tools and learn how to use them. It’s the only way to not get left behind in the ever-growing digitalization of the legal profession.

Smart tools already exist to help lawyers and legal consultants with numerous tasks. Examples are contract review and flagging, contract drafting, legal research, litigation outcome predictors etc. Learning how these tools work and mastering their application will give you a head start in comparison to other legal freelancers or lawyers who are still getting familiar with a more digital approach to legal consultancy.

How can you acquire soft skills as a legal professional?

As a legal professional, you shouldn’t rely on your clients or employer to offer you all kinds of training programs and additional seminars. If one of your clients does offer you to join a team building or training session with the other employees, don’t hesitate to do so, but don’t expect this to happen at every assignment or company.

The best way to continuously improve your soft skills is by actively looking for your own ways to do so. Try registering for webinars and soft (and hard) skill trainings, keep yourself up to date by reading articles or other contributions and maybe even listen to a podcast once in a while. Keeping your eyes and ears open is, in general, a great method of attaining any form of self-improvement.

The most important tip we can give, however, is to try and learn from colleagues, friends, clients and other people you frequently come into contact with. Soft skills are mostly acquired by looking at other people and learning from their behaviour or attitude. It is not always possible to give textbook examples of how to communicate well or how to improve time management skills. Many character traits like empathy, communication and even time management are often mastered by simply mimicking other people’s habits. 

Maybe one of your colleagues has found a good way of creating a priority checklist? Or maybe one of your friends knows how your body posture can help you indicate that you’re open to listen and understand the concerns of your interlocutor? There are infinite ways of improving your soft skills, but the key is the same as always: communicate well, and you’ll go a very long way.
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