9 Essential Skills for Aspiring Lawyers
Samantha Love read Law at Merton College, Oxford, and is currently following the BCL course.
Get started on these key skills before you even get to the application process!
It doesn’t matter how far you are into your studies or your decision-making process; many of the abilities you need to be a good lawyer apply as much to work as a solicitor as a barrister, even if used in different ways, so it makes sense to start thinking about improving them as early as you can. This guide is intended to get you thinking about the kinds of things you’ll need to be able to do as a lawyer. It also provides you with some ideas of the things you can do to bring your talents up to scratch – even if you’re still at school.
1. Taking in lots of information and distilling the key points
This will be relevant whether you’re in a corporate firm reading all the documentation sent over as part of the disclosure process for a sale, or a criminal barrister reading through papers for a court case at short notice. Not only do you have to work out what’s relevant; you also need to be able to clearly explain it to your client or superior so that they understand where they stand. This is especially important if they need to make a decision on it.
Doing a law (or indeed any text-based) degree will improve your ability to do this immensely; you will have plenty of reading to do in short spaces of time! For additional practice or before you apply to university, try similar exercises with everyday information. Take a long news article and create a five-bullet summary, or explain something difficult you learnt at school to your parents in twenty seconds.
2. People skills
It cannot be overstated that legal work is client-centric, and that no matter how good you may be at the work you also need to be good at working with people! First seat trainees may not be meeting clients often but they will be expected to work well with the team they are sat with, and barristers rely on their reputation for work, which will inevitably be enhanced by being easy to work with. This isn’t an invitation to be over-personal with people but you do need to be polite, interested and interesting!
This is so early up the list because it’s easy to forget about when you think of qualities needed for legal practice, but it should also be the easiest to meet. Be polite to everyone, including staff, and show a genuine interest in everyone you meet. The little touches can really help to make a good impression; if you’ve been talking to somebody about their current work, wish them the best of luck with it when you say goodbye.
On a more professional level, lawyers need to be able to listen carefully to any instructions they are given and work with others to come up with suggestions. Team activities at school or group projects at universities will show you the importance of agreeing on what needs to be done, and making sure that everybody knows what their individual tasks are. Take any opportunities to meet new people so that you are not too nervous when you reach university and are invited to dinners or events put on by firms or chambers. This can just be family friends or getting a job in a shop; the idea is just to get you comfortable speaking to new people.
3. Working to a deadline/ planning ahead
The first point to note here is that this sometimes just isn’t possible! This however makes it even more crucial that practising lawyers are as ahead on everything as possible so that it is possible to clear the desk for that one thing which is going to take over for the next twenty four hours. As in any walk of life, you need to make sure you are clear on the deadlines for any work you have to do, and prioritise according to those deadlines and how long each task will take. It’s an easy mentality to get into so start now! There’s no need to remember absolutely everything which needs to be done; keeping a diary is much more reliable. When you reach university especially, an important/urgent matrix is amazingly helpful – make a table with two columns (important/not important) and two rows (urgent/not urgent) and enter your current tasks into the four boxes which are made. It helps prioritise work and especially makes sure you don’t forget about those important tasks which don’t need to be done immediately but do have a future deadline and will take a while to complete. You don’t want to remember about it the day before!
4. Asking the right questions
Whichever area of law you work in you need to be able to get the right information from your client, which is most important (and difficult) when they don’t know what information is relevant.
The most important part here is to understand exactly what you need to know before you sit down at the table. What are the important pieces of information for how the law will apply, or the deal will work out? What might cause problems next week, or what needs to be disclosed to the regulator even if your client thinks it insignificant? Sometimes you will need background information so you understand how things will work in the future – for this the next category and commercial awareness will be relevant too. Lateral thinking is key here; what could be helpful information for you, even if you don’t necessarily need it now? Once you know what to ask, questions need to be posed so that it is absolutely clear what you are asking and there is no confusion.
Strange as this sounds, the thinking processes explained above are quite similar to the ones which you need for playing 20 questions and organising events; thinking of all possibilities and knowing how to ask the right questions when the answers may be quite limited if you don’t phrase it correctly. A bit of practice at both won’t go amiss, but on a more serious note these are skills which you will pick up from doing problem questions during a law degree; dealing with limited facts and thinking about what else you would need to know in order to give a clear answer.
5. Understanding your client — and the other side
As said above, this is a client-focused industry. You need to know what your client is aiming for in a wider way than just what they have asked you to do for this transaction — it helps the process along if they don’t need to explain their aims at every turn, since it means you can put the options they’re most likely to prefer first in discussions and so on. It also helps to understand what everyone else involved in the case or transaction is aiming for, whether it’s so that you can pre-empt their arguments in a case or predict in advance what the likely outcome of negotiations will be.
When you’re on the job, obviously knowing your client is the big one and you cannot practise it in advance of knowing who that client is. However, as preparation for some elements you can do moots, debating or similar. For understanding people’s motivations you can’t do much better than the everyday skill of thinking about why somebody might be upset or cross about something which you do not see as important, or why they might be aiming for a goal which doesn’t seem interesting to you. The ability to see a situation from someone else’s point of view will prepare you for the day when you need to do it professionally, only with your extra lens of legal knowledge on top!
6. Speakers’ corner – barristers need to be good public speakers!
This is hopefully self-explanatory! Barristers might not speak like they do in films, but there is a fine art to putting across your point clearly and in an interesting way, and without seeming nervous. Do moots, join debate teams, do mini-presentations at home — whatever can help you with any jitters you might feel! Practice makes perfect, and you need to get the practice in as early as possible. On a practical side, be sure to check with a friend for any habits you might have when nervous, such as fiddling or speaking too quickly, and work on eliminating them. For those with long hair it is often an idea to tie it back. Projection is also one which takes a while to get used to – practise speaking to a friend across a long room and check they can hear you.
7. Thinking out legal solutions and arguments
This is all about lateral thinking and being able to consider lots of possibilities. Barristers often direct the framework of the argument, so you need to be able to work your way around case and statute law to come up with arguments which fit the facts. This comes with your undergraduate degree really, especially problem questions. It is also the sort of skill set you develop from any situation where you have to understand a set of information, then think of every possibility and evaluate how well each would work. An everyday example is from organising travel, for instance trying to work out the best route to take between two London Tube stations! This thinking process is something you will develop even without conscious effort, and the ability to apply it to legal problems is something you work on during your degree.
8. Teamwork makes the dream work
Obviously barristers still have to work with other people, such as clients and clerks, and other barristers on a large case. However, it’s solicitors who absolutely have to be able to work in a team on an ongoing basis. A larger law firm will deal with a transaction which is split across a few departments which all feed back into the main team. For instance, there might be tax, employment and competition implications of a merger, which will all require input from different departments and sometimes different offices or firms. As a trainee you need to understand whom to report to and by when, because every cog in the machine needs to work perfectly. When many elements feed into one project, it is important that everyone understands their role and completes any tasks by the deadline set.
Any logistics-based role you can get involved with at school or university will teach you all about keeping on top of a multi-part event or process. Join a society you’re interested in so that you can demonstrate that you understand this skill set, and to give yourself the opportunity to see how important it is that there is forward planning, clear communication and a good working relationship between everyone involved in a process.
9. Commercial awareness — the two dreaded words!
Many of the larger law firms ask for commercial awareness in prospective trainees, a phrase which tends to cause more confusion than it ought to and is actually a fairly simple idea. It means that you know a little about commerce and business and can apply common sense to a situation. The sort of background information which is helpful is the sort you’ll find in the Financial Times and broadsheets combined – knowledge of how business is currently going and political information about countries, especially those with developing markets.
Being able to think through everything necessary for opening a business is also considered important, not because your client won’t be able to think out her own strategy but because they might not thought of some of the regulatory implications and may not think to ask. Some good practice would be to think through all the stages of opening (say) a factory – acquiring money, then land, then security staff, then plant (the machinery) and experts to install it, establishing a supply chain, hiring day-to-day staff…the list goes on, and at every point the client will need legal support. Understanding these sorts of processes is just business common sense, but as a lawyer it is invaluable to understand what your client needs.
Whether you want to become a solicitor or barrister (or indeed go in-house or work in the third sector) there are plenty of common skills which you can start thinking about developing right now. An eye for detail, thinking laterally, getting on well with others and being able to understand the whole picture are valued in any profession but in law are very much central. They can be developed easily, many of them just by playing a part on a society committee when you get to university or even before then, but in many other less official ways too. Good luck!