Core competence: 6 new skills now required of lawyers

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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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10 Responses to “Core competence: 6 new skills now required of lawyers”

  1. Steve Coleman

    Lawyers need all the skills of any good business person.
    Don’t lawyers know that they are running a business? If not they should learn real quick.

    And don’t forget “customer service”.

    Steve Coleman

  2. Alonso Sarmiento

    Dear Sir.
    Being a lawyer is an honor, responsibility and a livelihood. In that order. Not Reverse Sort. These has been for centuries. The technology, glamour, the paraphernalia do not do best lawyers, only lawyers better marketed; but not always the result is a satisfied customer.
    The job of an attorney is to achieve the best RESULT for his client within the justice and law. In that order. the other can be made call lawyers but uniquely they are operators of the law.
    That does not clear that the lawyer always must be a man of his time and to make use of the technology as a work element (as in its time the mail or the telegraph were used); but not like a requirement to exert the right and justice.

  3. S. Rosalind Baker

    As a practicing lawyer who moved into the business and IT world, I would have to applaud Jordan for calling attention to the fact that it is time for the legal profession to catch up with the rest of industry.

    For me being a lawyer isn’t simply an honour. It’s a client service industry. In order to compete, you have to adapt.

    To set the legal profession apart as being immune to the changes that are happening in all other sectors including health care, business and IT, is folly.

    To wrap yourself in arcane principles that were created to mystify and intimidate is also folly and it will leave you in the dust bin of history.

  4. J Goodwin

    Well put again. There’s not a whole lot I can say, other than I agree wholeheartedly. I think this is particularly important for solos and smaller firms, where it’s more difficult to justify arcane practices by reliance on “pedigree.” I’m aiming to provide (or facilitate) guidance on these issues with NextLex.

  5. Gaston Bilder

    Estoy interesado en escribir sobre este tema: alguna sugerencia?.

    Atentamente,

    Gastón Bilder
    International Legal Counsel, Community Relationships

  6. Car Accident Lawyer

    I think these qualities make a well rounded person, period. I have some lawyer friends that do not even have half of the qualities listed above but are very good at what they do. The more time and effort you invest in yourself, communication skills, etc- the more successful you will become in your practice.

  7. peterson mutunga musili

    Well said than done,the skills are good and more so the business part of it should be inclusive because this is real business and the client is the king!let those who have ears hear

  8. Robert

    As a professional accountant, I can tell you that 100% of lawyers are financially illiterate.

    This is the primary reason why we have a disaster in our Family Court system.

  9. Stephen

    To Robert. Your assertion is not correct with respect to this current period. Most of the you corporate lawyers and commercial lawyer have realised that to properly earn the seat at the table in the business world as a lawyer you must be financially literate. As a result most of these young guys are taking up MBA and other financial appreciation courses like the ACCA diploma in financial management. I estimate that in the next five or ten years it will become an unwritten rule that inhouse counsel in profit companies should have a financial qualification. Not all hope is lost

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