Susan Moon

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….

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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….

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It’s one of the biggest cons going around. I cringe whenever I hear it. A lawyer laughs and says, “I’m not good with numbers — that’s why I became a lawyer.”

On the surface, it seems to make sense; it sounds like it should be true. For some, it might even be true. After all, the last time we used quadratic equations was back when loafers on bare feet were considered desirable footwear (thanks Don Johnson).

In-house lawyers should never, ever say they’re bad at math — even those who really are. After all, business people are preoccupied with numbers. As an in-house lawyer, telling a business person that you’re bad at math is like telling them you don’t care about the most important thing that everyone else in your company cares about, and if your company is publicly listed, what every investor in your company cares about — the company’s numbers….

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‘Tis the season to puzzle over holiday gift etiquette at the office. Every year, a few questions come up about this topic — what’s appropriate, how much, whether they really have to, etc. No really, one year, a colleague complained, “Well, I’m not getting much of a bonus this year, so why should I give a gift to my secretary?” What you’d call a true, selfless, holiday spirit.

Obviously, this was back during law firm days, when bonus announcements are made early, unlike at companies, where the grand reveal isn’t usually for another couple of months after wilting trees have been cleared from the driveways. Not gifting your admin wasn’t exactly unheard of at a law firm, though, and I think it evidences a difference between the impact of gift-giving at a large law firm versus in-house.

At a law firm, you could give gifts to every employee at the office (or not) and, while your colleagues would be appreciative (or not), this act (or lack thereof) really wouldn’t make much of a difference in your career. Do you still have zero clients? Okay, still not making partner. Still have boatloads of clients? Continue with deity status.

At a company, on the other hand, you need to find out the unwritten rules for gifting….

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Well, last Friday was interesting. When I decided to close the comments for last week’s installment of Moonlighting, Lat responded, “I’m glad at least someone is willing to try deactivation.” As expected, undeterred from the fact that they couldn’t comment directly on my post, the usual group of ATL commenters uniformly hijacked Kashmir Hill’s “revenge porn” post which followed mine on ATL to provide me with their usual thoughtful and highly encouraging feedback.

Later, an anonymous 2L tweeted as follows: And @susanmoon has the dubious distinction of being the first @atlblog writer to close off comments. When I joked to the 2L that my feelings get hurt every week, the 2L (taking me seriously, I presume) told me that instead of hiding, I should “rise above it” because even a SCOTUS justice would get flamed on ATL. This invited Brian Tannebaum (an ATL small-firm columnist) and some others to rush to my defense. What ensued was a flurry of debate on Twitter — infused with an abundance of insults — mainly between Brian and the 2L. I’m actually not quite sure why Brian got so involved, as I’m not even sure he likes me (that’s the real reason I cry every week). I think he just likes to pick on poor souls every once in a while (read: several times a day) for his own sadistic pleasure.

In any case, in addition to the entertainment value that the Brian v. 2L debates offered on Twitterverse Legal last weekend, there were definitely some interesting points made on both sides about the value of anonymous feedback….

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An in-house lawyer (let’s call her Athena) was recently offended by a statement made by a law firm attorney (let’s call him Hercules). Athena shared a conversation in which Hercules had told her that his firm would never stoop so low as to represent any companies in her industry (let’s say it’s the tobacco industry).

When Athena informed Hercules that, well, his firm actually did represent her company, he told her that she must be mistaken. She responded by bringing up a picture on her mobile phone of an attorney at his firm who was working on one of her tobacco cases, and Hercules replied, “I’ve never seen her before. She can’t be very important.” With a high and (al)mighty look, Hercules then went off to clear his head by having a few smokes.

As Athena complained about this incident, she was so upset that she had trouble blowing her usually perfectly-circular cigarette rings into the air. My initial reaction (knowing how Hercules can be a jovial kind of deity character) was that Hercules had been kidding (and probably had a bit too much ambrosia, as well), and that Athena should lighten up a bit and get a sense of humor, for gods’ sakes.

A couple of years ago, my thoughts about the matter would have ended there, and I would have forgotten the incident completely after returning to my humble, mortal abode. This time, I had some other takeaways….

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Specialty bar associations can be great opportunities for in-house lawyers to grow their network and develop their careers. Unlike some mega bar associations, they tend to feel more intimate and collegial, even if their membership numbers are pretty large, because the members share a common interest.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the NAPABA (National Asian Pacific American Bar Association) convention in Atlanta. This organization represents the interests of over 40,000 attorneys and about 65 local bar associations. And let me tell you, they had a lot going on at their annual gathering. And I don’t just mean the after-hours partying….

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Are your in-house working hours recently rivaling the billable hours you thought you had permanently discarded? Is your workload getting way too heavy — i.e., it’s really getting difficult to watch Glee on a timely basis? Do you find yourself working on pretty much the same form of contract over and over and over and over and over and over and over, ad infinitum?

It may be time to take a break and evaluate the problem of Low-Value Work.

What’s Low-Value Work? It’s work that has three main characteristics….

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Last week was my company’s annual legal conference. This year, lawyers from around the world descended upon the cultural and historic haven called New Orleans. And we had lots of stuff planned. And I don’t mean just food. Although the week did feel kind of like this:

Food / Event / More Food / Event / AND More Food / Event / Full-on Food “Event”

We spent a part of the first day volunteering with a New Orleans-based organization called St. Bernard Project. SBP is an amazing non-profit that was formed 5 years ago by a lawyer (Zack Rosenburg) and a teacher (Liz McCartney). After a week’s visit to New Orleans, these two decided to give up their lives as they knew them and settle in New Orleans to help people whose homes and lives were devastated by Hurricane Katrina and the Oil Spill. SBP has several programs and about 60 of us worked in the effort to rebuild houses — painting, removing siding, installing insulation, et cetera. SBP is all about quality when it comes to rebuilding homes; so if the air bubble in the level you’re using is even just touching one of the vertical lines on either side, you can expect an earful from your supervisor who won’t care that your “real” job doesn’t involve the use of power tools. Unless it’s April Fool’s Day at the office. (More on that at another time.)

Our legal conference also included a couple of training sessions. One of them was held by Second City. Yes, Second City — you know, the famous comedy club/school that has trained (among other comedy elites) the entire original cast of Saturday Night Live?

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Does your company hold employee “social events”? These range from bigger events like town halls, summer picnics, and holiday parties, to smaller, more intimate socials like Friday afternoon ice cream sundae breaks, cubicle-decorating contests, and themed get-togethers. They all have the same goals — encourage a team atmosphere, help boost morale, and announce company information.

Do you think of these events as times for you to relax, stuff yourself with free food, and take a break from work? Do you have a tendency to blow off some of these events as fluffy wastes of time (obviously the lawyers who show up for these aren’t as busy as you are)? If so, that’s a big mistake.

My take is that these “social” events should generally be viewed as “work,” not breaks from work. They’re fantastic opportunities for you to advance your in-house legal career, so just relaxing and having fun at these events means you’re missing out on a lot. Also, let’s be serious here, they’re not really all that fun. I mean, Mardi Gras = fun. A night on the town with your best buddies = fun. Cocktail weenies in the lobby next to the copy room = meh.

So forget the fun, and get to work at the socials!

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