Everyone talks about how soft skills are important for success. Soft skills, also referred to as people skills, EQ, et cetera, are key to influence, persuasion, karaoke smack-talk, and many other aspects of being a savvy lawyer and advocate. They’re essential for both in-house and law firm attorneys. But what are soft skills exactly?

We often know when soft skills are at play, such as when an employee is confronted by a group of hostile workers and is able to calm them down before they go too far and, God forbid, blog their grievances. Figuring out a definition, though, is kind of difficult. I decided to try asking my social media circles: “What’s your definition of soft skills?” I received many informative responses such as: “the ones I don’t have,” “skills our parents never taught us,” “hmm, that’s a hard one,” and “are we keeping this discussion R-rated and under?” Thanks people, very helpful.

Soft skills are difficult to define, in part because it’s easier to talk about them in relation to what they aren’t — hard skills. Hard skills are the technical information and expertise we need to do our job. Soft skills are basically everything else. Hard skills are quantifiable and more readily measurable. State bars test hard skills. Soft skills are behavioral and more difficult to quantify. Dive bars test soft skills. They involve a spectrum of behaviors, including verbal and written communication, effective management, overall leadership, and how to get the IT guy to fix your computer first. In sum, they’re the behaviors we engage in that impact our overall effectiveness on the job….

Business people are trained in soft skills early on. For example, at Harvard Business School, leadership and soft skills courses are required every year. And in addition to the standard required soft skills courses, HBS requires a separate field course, the first portion of which emphasizes the development of leadership attributes.

In contrast, Harvard Law School’s required coursework (which is similar to most law schools’ — not just knocking Harvard here, although who doesn’t like to knock Harvard?) emphasizes technical skills only — analyzing case law, civil procedure, legislation, research and writing, et cetera. While HLS offers some soft skills electives, they’re few and far between, and they certainly don’t seem to be viewed as mandatory training for those entering the legal profession. Nope, not even for the gunners. Considering that lawyers haven’t received much formal training in soft skills, is it any wonder that we’re often left out of the loop and sought as a last resort, viewed as one of the more socially-awkward groups in the workplace? It’s because it’s true!

Why this discrepancy between business and law school curricula? Maybe it’s because soft skills don’t seem very important until you become a more senior attorney who’s trying to get clients (if at a law firm) or managing large groups of people (if in-house). But this is where we’re wrong. We are judged on our ability to communicate, inspire confidence, and exhibit leadership, and it begins from the very first interview, even from the reading of our résumés. Heck, I’ll judge you from the first wimpy handshake, if that’s all I’ve got to go on. Sure, we’ll be critiqued more for our soft skills as we become more senior. But this just means that if we don’t focus on these abilities early on in our career, we’ll lag behind others who have spent years honing them.

Interestingly, law firms and companies differ in the type of training they provide to their employees. Law firms offer virtually no formal training for soft skills — the closest thing is usually some type of diversity workshop, and it’s not because the firms care about soft skills per se. They do usually offer plenty of technical legal training in the form of CLEs, however. At companies, on the other hand, there are often many soft skills training sessions available for employees in general — I’m talking multi-day marathons for some of these things.

But forget CLEs — generally, in-house lawyers get their CLE credits through outside vendors such as PLI, bar associations, and sometimes outside counsel. Maybe it makes sense for law firms, since they’re viewed as technical experts, to focus more on technical legal ability. And maybe companies often assume that new in-house lawyers arrive with a good base of legal knowledge and will mainly learn about the business going forward. What may be better is if the developmental offerings for lawyers at both firms and companies become more of a hybrid of CLE and soft skills training.

Next week, we’ll examine some soft skills specifics and strategies, like how to get to the general counsel first when everybody else is already knocking down his door about that project you totally messed up — hint: getting on his admin’s good side is key. If you have any tips you’d like to share in the meantime, please feel free to email me at [email protected]


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 [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.


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