Core competence: 6 new skills now required of lawyers

Up till now, the necessary and sufficient skill set for lawyers has looked something like this (in alphabetical order):

  • Analytical ability
  • Attention to detail
  • Logical reasoning
  • Persuasiveness
  • Sound judgment
  • Writing ability (okay, that one’s apparently optional for some)

This list doesn’t include such characteristics as knowledge of the law, courtroom presence, or integrity — these aren’t “skills,” per se, so much as information one acquires or basic elements of one’s character. Even innovation, which I prize so highly, is first and foremost an attitude and willingness to think and act differently.

Rather, I’m concerned here with actual skill: a ready proficiency or applied ability acquired and developed through training and experience. Your degree of character, diligence and intelligence are innate characteristics; skills are what you acquire through their application. If you possessed these six skills in sufficient abundance, you were fully qualified to practise law.

Well, not anymore. From this point onwards, while these skills remain necessary, they’re no longer sufficient: they constitute only half of the set necessary to practise law competently, effectively and competitively. Here’s the new six-pack, the other half of tomorrow’s — no, today’s — minimum skills kit for lawyers (again in alphabetical order).

1. Collaboration skills. This isn’t just about “working well in a team,” essential as that is. This is about the ability to function in a multi-party work environment such that the process and outcome transcend the collective contribution — the whole surpasses the sum of the parts. Thanks to technological and social advances, this is how work is going to be done from now on. Lawyers who collaborate well possess the ability to identify and bring out the best others have to offer, to submerge their own positions and egos where necessary, in order to reach the optimal client outcome. Collaborative lawyers trust the wisdom of the group; lone wolves and isolationists don’t do any good anymore.

2. Emotional intelligence. If you just rolled your eyes at this entry, you probably subscribe to the belief, drilled into us in law school and in practice, that lawyers have to detach themselves emotionally from their cases and clients in order to offer the best advice. That’s idiotic. Clients need our empathy, perspective and personal connection to feel whole and satisfied; colleagues need our engagement, respect and understanding to be their best and help us succeed; everyone needs us to listen better than we do. Distant, detached lawyers are relics of the 20th century — the market no longer wants a lawyer who’s only half a person.

3. Financial literacy. This is a widespread issue, recently identified by The Economist as a factor in the subprime meltdown and other economic woes. But there’s no excuse for lawyers to remain so steadfastly clueless about money: running a business, balancing a ledger, understanding tax principles, working with statistics, calculating profit margins, even explaining the rationale behind their fees. Too many lawyers with Arts degrees just shrug and say, “I was never good with numbers” or “They never taught me that in law school.” Not good enough: every client and every case involves money in some way, and every lawyer in private practice is running a business of one size or another. Financial literacy is essential.

4. Project management. It’s a growing refrain among clients, a chorus of frustration that most lawyers have zero skills in project management. Some lawyers wouldn’t even be able to define it: planning, organizing, and managing resources to successfully complete specific objectives while maintaining scope, quality, time and budget restrictions. Lawyers seem pathologically unwilling to estimate time or budget costs (invoking the almighty “it depends” clause) and incapable of creating and managing a plan of action, presumably for fear of failing or being caught shorthanded. But today, everybody project-manages: it’s SOP in corporate life, and lawyers are the only ones in the business chain who seem to have missed the memo.

5. Technological affinity. Gerry Riskin recently called out the legal profession in a timely post on this subject: “too many lawyers pride themselves on their IT incompetencies, believing that it makes them somehow charming and brilliant.” Lawyers have grown accustomed to going unchallenged on their technological backwardness, and even tech-savvy new lawyers eventually succumb to firms’ glacial pace of tech adaptation. Here is a fact: technological affinity is a core competence of lawyering. If you can’t effectively and efficiently use e-mail, the Internet, and mobile telephony, you might as well just stay home. And if you don’t care to learn about RSS, instant messaging, Adobe Acrobat and the like, clients and colleagues will pass you by.

6. Time management. Virtually every lawyer I meet says the same things: “I’m just so busy. I have so much to do. I don’t have any time for myself.” And yes, law is demanding, hard work. But a substantial part of lawyers’ difficulties in this regard lie with their inability to prioritize their tasks and manage their time. Lawyers are terrible at saying “no,” they’re awful at delegating work into more efficient channels, and amazingly, many are still compensated not by the tasks they accomplish but by how long they take to do them. Lawyers who won’t or can’t learn to manage their time will continue to blame their Blackberrys for their difficulties, if they don’t burn out or get fired first.

So there you have it: six core skills that lawyers simply must possess if they want to make a living in the 21st century. Law schools need to teach them; governing bodies need to test for them; law firms need to make their lawyers expert in them. They’re not optional, there are no excused absences, and the test is starting right about now.


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