Last week, we looked at why lawyers need soft skills and noted that there’s a general lack of this kind of training for them. Today, we’ll consider some strategies for learning to play nice in the legal sandbox.
As mentioned last week, there are so many different types of soft skills — communication, leadership, management, presentation skills, etc. What does a socially-awkward lawyer work on first? Well, it depends. (Fyi, “it depends” is a great lawyerly response for virtually every situation where you don’t know the answer.)
As with hard skills, the soft skills you should focus on depends on your pre-existing responsibilities and the skills you already have. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume you have none.
Below is a very basic outline of some required soft skills for particular levels of attorney seniority. I’ve listed a few skills listed for each level and a further description of one skill per level, to prevent this post from becoming a mind-numbing two-hour read (as opposed to a mind-numbing five-minute read). It’s a bit of a laundry list, but the idea is to provide a big-picture overview….
For junior attorneys, you will want to start developing effective communication, the ability to inspire trust/convey competence and confidence, business etiquette, networking skills, and time management/prioritization. Effective communication is probably the most important soft skill for any level, as it affects many of the other soft skills. It involves both verbal and non-verbal (e.g., body language, tone of voice, etc.) communication, as well as other various mediums such as email, memos, and the passive aggressive tactics that co-workers engage in on April Fool’s Day. For example, rolling your eyes at something the general counsel says during a status meeting may sound like a rockin’ good time, but it’s a very bad idea.
For those of you in middle management, you’ll want to build upon the skills above by adding people management, conflict resolution, and the ability to influence/persuade others. People management involves delegating responsibilities and motivating and inspiring your reports to achieve their full potential. You’re responsible for their performance, productivity, and growth. You’ll also need to effectively provide feedback, which includes delicate criticism. In other words, it’s exactly like raising kids.
For senior managers, some crucial soft skills you’ll want to add are crisis management, leadership, team-building and inclusiveness, and public speaking. Crisis management involves understanding when something really is a crisis, not just peeing in your pants about it, making good decisions under pressure, finding out who or what is responsible for a crisis and addressing that root cause, and then dealing with communications to the media (who are sure to find out).
So now that we know what to work on, how do we work on these skills? Certain well-known soft skills trainings, like the FranklinCovey workshops, often cost a ton of money. Some cheaper options? Obviously, if your company offers soft skills training, you should take advantage of them. Also, there are workshop “aggregators,” like STAR12, a program I’ve heard great things about. This company offers seminars, workshops, and webinars on numerous topics for about a $300 annual fee. You can purchase a membership yourself or perhaps ask your company to (they may be able to negotiate a cheaper bulk rate). And of course, books, audiobooks, and video on these topics are less expensive options as well.
You can also try looking to bar associations. For example, most of the in-house lawyer benefits described in my prior post about NAPABA were soft skills-related. Also, when I was on the board of another minority bar, KALAGNY, we participated in a day-long priorities training offered by the American Bar Association for bar association leaders. Many of the skills were transferable to the workplace. Browse around the bar associations’ websites for links and other information tailored for lawyers. If your member bar association doesn’t offer soft skills training, ask them to consider it. Tell them it’s one of those things that will benefit all of their members, as opposed to some other subject-specific panel discussions. (That’ll get them thinking!).
Another great way to develop soft skills — especially leadership skills — is to serve on a non-profit board. Non-profits are always looking for new leaders, and they provide numerous opportunities to gain experience through committee and board participation.
Finally, get day-to-day tips from those around you. Take note of those who handle situations well, or at least better than you. When you’re on a conference call with the general counsel, focus not only on what she says, but how she says it. How does she open the call to set everyone’s expectations? How does she close the call so everyone feels like they play an important part on a team, instead of wondering why they just wasted two hours that could have been more wisely spent by cultivating crops on Farmville? My colleagues and I sometimes bounce email drafts off each other to confirm that they don’t sound offensive, disrespectful or rude. Such negativity has no place at a work environment — only on anonymous online forums.
So start paying attention to the soft skill opportunities all around you. You’ll find that improving yours doesn’t have to be very hard.
Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at SusanMoonATL@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.