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Top Skills a Lawyer Needs for Success

By Theda C. Snyder

What are the top skills a lawyer needs for success? Choose from this buffet of essential lawyer skills to plan your ascent.

Anonymous lawyer posts in social media communities like Fishbowl Law and Reddit Lawyertalk disclose a lot of lawyer angst. Lawyers want more satisfaction from their law practice. Some want more money, some want more respect, and some want more work-life balance. The common thread is that they are in a quandary about how to achieve those goals. 

top skills a lawyer needs for success

The first step is to identify the lawyer skills you need to accelerate your trip to the top of our profession. Some discrete skills are more relevant to one practice area than another. You may have perfected your abilities in some areas but need to up your game in other ways. Choose from this buffet of essential lawyer skills to plan your ascent.

Lawyer Communication Skills

communication skills

Effective communication skills are critical in every facet of your legal practice. Effective legal communication comprises writing, speaking and listening.

Perfect grammar and accurate word choice form the bedrock of all good writing. The lawyer’s job is to be a persuasive advocate. The real trick to legal document drafting is to make your work product as comprehensible as non-legal writing. Whether it’s a brief or an informal message, precision in legal writing is the hallmark of the most effective advocates.

For a persuasive legal argument, take the time to organize your message for maximum impact. Revise legal communications to break down complex concepts into easily digestible bites by using plain language and short sentences and paragraphs. Vary your word choice to avoid boring your reader. Copious use of your dictionary, thesaurus and style guide makes your writing interesting as well as accurate. Showcase your most important argument; don’t bury it in a morass of background information. Software like WordRake and Grammarly can help. Be open to using generative AI to assist with your communications — but use it with caution.

Oral Skills

Of course, effective rhetoric in law utilizes speaking skills. What you say is important. How you say it matters almost as much. I mean, you know, like, if your speech pattern makes you sound more like a teenager than a professional adult, you have weakened the power of your message. People are most receptive to mellifluous tones. Avoid upspeak or uptalk, where every sentence sounds more like a question. If your regional accent draws unwanted attention, a vocal coach can help you lose it. With a bit of attention and coaching, you can improve your voice delivery.

Do you sound like a lawyer? Most people would say that’s not a good thing. Technical words that encapsulate a concept may work well in oral argument, but they can confuse other types of listeners. On the other hand, some common speech mannerisms sound unprofessional and undermine your message.

Whether presenting an oral argument or advising a client, streamline your message. The best communicators are those who are best prepared. In the press of daily law practice, some lawyers try to wing it in a client meeting, negotiation or court hearing. You may think you got away with it, but people do notice. One mediator was so dismayed that he shared his assessment that the other side was completely unprepared. A judge privately commented that a lawyer’s presentation was so bad that she wanted to jump down from the bench and deliver the argument herself.

Public Speaking

Public speaking for lawyers occurs in a variety of settings. Again, preparation is key. You may not think of your courtroom communication as public speaking, but it is. Direct and cross examination in trial is the classic lawyer speaking setting, but few cases reach that milestone. More commonly, you will exercise oral advocacy skills in motion practice. A well-created “day in the life” presentation at a settlement conference can significantly increase the value of a case.

Formal legal presentations may range from a seminar for a few people in your conference room, to a conference speech to a few hundred in a live audience, to a Zoom presentation to thousands of viewers. For every setting, tailor your words and visuals to audience expectations. Know your topic inside and out.

Active Listening Skills

Don’t discount listening skills for understanding in legal consultations, negotiating and courtroom proceedings. The lawyers with the best speaking skills are also the best listeners. Too often, an advocate is so busy thinking of the next thing to say that they miss what the other person is saying. In lawyer-client interaction, a client may characterize their problem as one type of issue, but careful listening and further questioning will elicit facts that turn an iffy case into a winner. Similarly, in deposition and for effective courtroom listening, a witness’ unexpected reference to a fact or event may warrant following up, but many lawyers miss the opportunity. Try to keep a straight face when you stay silent while your babbling opponent puts their strident foot in their advocacy mouth.

legal research skills

Sure, you learned how to conduct legal research in law school, but the legal research techniques landscape is changing rapidly. You can save money by using free legal research sites. Generative AI (artificial intelligence) is free for now, but as some lawyers have learned to their sorrow, does not always produce accurate results. Always check your statute and case analysis results with a reliable legal database such as LexisNexis or Westlaw, both of which have jumped on the AI bandwagon. Keep abreast of innovative legal software by subscribing to news from authoritative sources such as bar associations.

Attention to Detail and Meticulousness

What about those lawyers who didn’t check the box to request a jury trial (though it might have been a suit in chancery), and then their famous client repeatedly complained to the media that he was unfairly deprived of a jury? Those pesky details can ruin your case and missing one can alienate your client.

Lawyers read a lot. You read case documents, legal opinions and statutes, and commentary. You need to catch everything that pertains to the problem you are working on. The job calls for meticulous legal review. Face it.

Clients have zero tolerance for mistakes by lawyers, surgeons and airline pilots. Precision in law is critical. Systems for meeting legal deadlines are crucial. Careful calendaring is part of detail-oriented lawyering. Blowing a statute of limitations will quickly result in a notice to your Errors & Omissions carrier of an occurrence and maybe a message from your state licensing board.

The solution comprises two steps. The first is meticulous legal review. Take the time to study all aspects of the matter. Shun shortcuts. For example, if you are using computer document review, build in redundant systems. Human oversight quality control needs to sample the results to confirm accuracy. This kind of detail-oriented lawyering avoids critical mistakes.

Problem-solving, Critical Thinking, and Decision-making

Clients come to lawyers for the lawyers’ problem-solving abilities. The lawyer’s job is to use analytical skills to accurately define the problem. The next step in legal decision-making is to determine appropriate, cost-effective solutions. Finally, the lawyer must lay out the client’s choices while being both objective and a zealous advocate. Whew! That’s a big job.

Lawyer Negotiation and Dispute Resolution

Negotiation and Dispute Resolution

Lawyers’ work encompasses avoiding conflict, such as drafting an airtight agreement and resolving conflict. A well-crafted demand letter or mediation statement can be the most important tool for resolving a conflict in a timely and successful way. Even tasks that seem more collaborative than adversarial on the surface often involve negotiation. For example, creating a new employee handbook may require input from multiple stakeholders.

Of course, litigation is the classic situation for you to wield your legal negotiation techniques and dispute resolution skills. As a young attorney, watching others in action is invaluable, even if you have to make up those billable hours. Consider listening to audiobooks or podcasts about the art of negotiation during your commute or while running errands.

Negotiation preparation includes studying the players and totally familiarizing yourself with the process. Court appearances and mediation in law are now often electronic. Rehearse with your client so the client is comfortable with the technology.

Resilience for Lawyers

Law practice is stressful. Not every day will be a walk in the park. You may get an adverse ruling, hear from an unhappy client, or have to deal with an employee’s health issues. You may experience cash flow pressures or staffing issues. It’s wise to set up backup systems for operations problems you can anticipate. That might include establishing relationships to outsource attorney work, an account with a temporary staffing agency and a ready line of credit at your bank.

Overcoming legal setbacks is part of the profession. Resilience for lawyers means you will continue to move forward, sometimes because there is no place else to go.

Stress management techniques might include focusing on the positive, reviewing and revising the plans you previously made, and some much-needed self-care. Remain flexible in assessing your response to evolving legal practices. Create a new plan. Your legal strategies are adaptable to the new environment.

Expect the unexpected. Attorneys have had to cope with disruptions such as the 1982 Chicago flood, which made office buildings inaccessible, the 1994 Northridge, California, earthquake, which pretty much shut down Los Angeles, and the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, which changed the practice of law throughout America.

How to cope with stress management in law? Many attorneys rely on a business coach or therapist.

Lawyer Adaptability

An evolving legal landscape requires adaptable legal strategies. Evolving legal practices demand flexibility to meet these challenges promptly. Lawyers must stay up-to-date on new laws and court decisions to serve current and new clients. Client legal needs are changing rapidly. Developments in areas such as AI, cryptocurrency and reproductive rights create new client demands and new business opportunities for counsel who can quickly get up to speed. Clients also expect their lawyers to use the latest technology to efficiently serve their needs.

Rainmaking: Lawyer Business Development, Marketing and Sales

rainmaking skills

Rainmakers are the people who create profit for your organization. The terms law firm “business development (BD)” and “marketing” are often used interchangeably by lawyers. An internet search for the definition of BD produces results like “creating value in your organization” and “building strategic relationships.” Sounds like a lot of word salad, right? Here’s a way to organize these functions.

Take a helicopter approach. Business development includes determining how your practice will grow. The side effect of keeping abreast of legal news is being able to recognize new opportunities and analyzing if pursuing them makes sense for your practice: What resources will these changes require? Should you hire a lateral with expertise in this area? Maybe the best way to build value is to keep doing what you’re doing, but upgrade your client profile. Can you ethically work both sides of an issue? That could mean representing employers as well as employees in discrimination claims or landlords as well as tenants. Some tort defense firms take on plaintiff cases. What client acquisition strategies target these groups?

Once you know the direction you want to take, create a verifiable marketing plan. “Increase revenue” is not a verifiable plan; “increase revenue by 10% within the next six months over the same period last year” is. Specify tasks for each person in the organization and set a date to review if things are working as planned.

You already have social networks and professional connections. Legal networking lets family, friends and professional connections know you are expert in a specific area. While this is important if you are branching out, you may be surprised to learn that some close connections are ignorant of what you already do.

Once the market starts to bring prospects to your door, you need to exercise your sales skills. Getting a lot of inquiries in response to that article you wrote is great, but it doesn’t improve your bottom line if the client doesn’t retain you. Review your client intake processes. Is your website bringing in clients or turning them off? Create a protocol for client interface to avoid shopper clients. That might include an interview checklist of important questions such as “have you consulted with other lawyers about this case?”

When it comes to legal sales techniques, closing the sale means getting the client’s signature on the retainer agreement.

Client Service Excellence and Client Relationship Management

Getting new clients is hard, so keeping them satisfied is important. Numerous studies have shown that client service excellence can be more important than case results.

Regular communication is key to clients appreciating what you do and legal client retention. You could be spending a massive amount of time on their case, but if you don’t let the clients know, they might think you are ignoring them. Calendar regular dates to send out status reports, even if not much — or nothing — has happened. Explain why there is a lack of progress at this stage and what the client can expect in the future. Think of your invoices as a sales tool.

Be likable. Get to know your clients, their families and their businesses. If clients like you, they will give you business and refer others.

Lawyer Organization Skills and Lawyer Time Management

pushing the clock

How many times have you worked eight hours or more but could only bill for three? Building efficient systems for law practice management is critical to creating a successful law practice and maintaining work-life balance.

Time management for lawyers starts with a billing program that allows you to record time in the office and on the go. Maintain rigorous time submission protocols for all timekeepers in the firm.

Besides juggling your workload, meeting case and court deadlines, and billing enough work to support the firm plus a comfortable lifestyle, the most organized lawyers allot adequate time for a social life and family.

The array of technology available for managing your work and personal life can feel overwhelming. Legal technology companies offer software and apps for time and billing, file management, client relations management, calendaring, project management, and much more. Of course, every manufacturer claims to be the best, and every product is adding new artificial intelligence features.

Don’t give up. Your bar association may have an expert on staff to help you identify your areas of greatest need and figure out solutions. The American Bar Association Legal Technology Resource Center offers tons of information. Consider spending a couple of hours at an event like a bar association expo. You can peruse vendors’ wares and interrogate their sales representatives with no commitment. You will get the best recommendations if you can cogently express your needs.

Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Calendar/docketing programs can be career-savers, but remember the GIGO (Garbage In/Garbage Out) principle. Someone must be responsible for inputting or importing the data, and you need a backup system. No one wants to have to beg the court to undo a ruling because someone was sick or on vacation.

Of course, you will use that calendaring system to record filing deadlines but don’t stop there. Legal workload management is another facet of time management. Calendar a follow-up date for every matter in your inventory so nothing slips through the cracks.

Record dates for office events, which can include everything from performance reviews to staff birthdays. Also, record follow-up dates for marketing activity.

In addition to using a good document and file management system, make full use of the features in your email and word processing programs to keep items organized and readily accessible. Also, cross-reference case file management with your CRM (client relationship manager) and subject matter keywords for efficient lawyering.

Lawyer Leadership Skills

lawyers improving skills

Think about the qualities of a leader. A leader has integrity. A leader is loyal. A leader has good judgment. A leader helps their group define and reach a common goal. A leader helps others. A leader commands respect. Leadership in law firms, in your profession and in your community have distinct purposes.

Law firms are notorious for internal rivalry. Client-stealing and scream fests on points allocation day are not uncommon. Leading legal teams can be a challenge (some say it’s like herding cats), but it’s integral to law firm management.

In contrast, try to foster a spirit of cooperation. One way to do this is by cross-marketing. This marketing technique benefits the marketer and inspires loyalty among co-workers. Spotlight your firm’s deep bench of experts in a variety of disciplines.

Similarly, delegating tasks within the firm to the benefit of the entire team enhances your position as a leader.

Share your knowledge. Do this informally by circulating important news that affects the firm’s practice and clients. Do this formally by encouraging and participating in internal continuing legal education events.

Even if you are new to the profession, you can be a leader in your firm. Leaders in the legal profession gain followers by writing for professional publications and speaking at professional events. After an initial successful appearance, the invitations and prestige will multiply.

Build a referral network. Look for ways to make lawyers outside your firm see you as the go-to person in your field.

Your marketing activities publicize your expertise and availability. Outside the practice of law, lawyers are natural leaders due to their ability to analyze a situation and articulate that analysis. That carries over to community events, which can range from coaching Little League to social gatherings. As people get to know you, they will respect and like you for your ideas, all of which heighten your image as a leader.

Legal ethics should govern everything you do. The American Bar Association has published Model Rules of Professional Conduct and every state has some form of a lawyer’s code of conduct and oath on admission to practice. The overwhelming majority of states also require regular education in legal ethics to ensure professionalism in law.

Interpersonal Skills

The lawyer who yells and swears at their staff and their opponents is unlikely to get the best result for the client. The attorney who refuses to work with others in the firm will have a hard time getting assistance from those people when they need it. It should go without saying that “Don’t be an asshole” should be a lawyer’s minimal commitment to civility. Yet, there are lawyers who pride themselves on being jerks.

Team-Building and Collaboration Skills

The better path is to participate in collaborative legal practices. Exercise your interpersonal legal skills to foster teamwork in your law firm.

It costs you nothing to maintain a respectful and courteous demeanor in all legal interactions. Respectful lawyering and professional conduct in law can help you succeed. Legal workplace etiquette includes respect for every worker in your workplace regardless of their place in the hierarchy. The happiest work environment is one where collaborative legal practices and law firm teamwork are the norm.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. That metaphor applies to understanding client perspectives and working with others inside and outside your firm. People with high emotional intelligence can understand others’ emotional states and help them and themselves manage personal emotions.

Legal emotional competency is an emotional skill. You will encounter people in different emotional states: sad, confused, needy, angry, vengeful. Empathy means you can understand how they got there, even when you don’t agree with their process or result. This is the first step to building client-attorney rapport.

Lawyer Business Skills

Lawyer Business Skills

The transition from law school to law practice can be a shock. In addition to knowing and applying the law, now you need to juggle a new set of demands from the workplace and your client base.

Law may be a learned profession, but running a law practice is much like running any other business. That requires an understanding of the various components. The ABA Law Practice Division breaks it down to marketing, practice management, finance and technology. Thankfully, there is a lot of readily available information to help you develop legal business acumen, even if you never worked in a business before.

Start right. You may not have any management duties in your firm, but you do have the duty to manage your own practice. Managing your workload, making marketing connections and mastering technology are skills every lawyer should acquire. Thinking about the lawyer’s job as an entrepreneur can make you a more valuable firm member and afford career security.

Financial Literacy for Lawyers

“I was told there would be no math” wasn’t true. Every area of law requires math. Whether it’s analyzing a spreadsheet or evaluating a case for settlement, you need to be able to understand the figures. Clients look to you for legal financial advising as part of your legal service.

Want more money? How about managing your money better? Managing law firm finances by the seat of your pants can lead to disaster. The old saying is that it’s not how much you make; it’s how much you keep. Create a budget. Keep track of expenses. Get creative about ways to lower your overhead. That can be anything from shifting to more remote work and reducing your square footage the next time the office lease comes up to outsourcing some legal and clerical functions. Justify every expense.

Personal finance matters, too. More than one lawyer with a successful practice has complained of being miserable because they had no financial cushion. A lawyer who has an excellent reputation, more clients than the firm can handle, and an impressive income stream will nonetheless have life problems if the lawyer or their life partner is spending faster than the money is coming in. News stories tell us this situation can lead some professionals to serious ethical lapses.

Address a disconnect between your firm and personal finances by hiring a financial professional. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for referrals from others in your professional and social sphere. Together with your life partner (there’s no point in plugging only one of several holes in your financial dyke), interview two or three candidates. Fees matter. Annual fees can range from 0.5% to as much as 5% depending on the amount under professional management. If you are starting a financial planner relationship with no nest egg at all, hourly fees would be appropriate. Choose the planner who you feel most comfortable with and who charges a reasonable fee. Even if the fee feels like a lot, getting your personal financial house in order will reduce your stress and allow you to further excel in your law practice.

Be a Lawyer Mentor/Find a Lawyer Mentor

Every law firm or department has its own culture. Failing to transmit institutional knowledge and values can threaten a group’s very existence. Mentors build loyal teams who create profit through their excellent work and rainmaking. The time and effort required to assume a mentor role redounds to your organization’s and your personal benefit.

Understandably, a new admittee or lateral hire might take a while to get the lay of the land. Some firms have mentorship programs to help integrate newer lawyers and help them sharpen their legal and business skills. What the newbie really needs is a sponsor, a champion to brag about the new person’s accomplishments both inside and outside the firm. From a pragmatic, realistic point of view, in times of upheaval the mentor-mentee relationship can really pay off. If your partner leaves, you want to have the option to go along. You certainly want to avoid being laid off. The ideal relationship has no time limit. Nurture it as the lawyers progress in their careers.

Conclusion

One of the great things (but also scary) about being a lawyer is that every case is different. New scenarios will pique your curiosity. You’re always learning new things inside and outside the law through formal channels, like continuing legal education, and your own factual and legal research. Your practice will lead you to meet new people and overcome new challenges.

It feels wonderful to be that good.

Image © iStockPhoto.com.

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Teddy Snyder Theda C. Snyder

Theda “Teddy” Snyder mediates civil disputes, workers’ compensation and insurance coverage cases, including COVID-19 related coverage disputes, in person or by video. Teddy has practiced in a variety of settings and frequently speaks and writes about settlements and the business of law. She was a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and is the author of four ABA books, including “Women Rainmakers’ Best Marketing Tips, 4th Edition” as well as “Personal Injury Case Evaluation” available on Amazon.com. Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at SnyderMediations.com and on Twitter @SnyderMediation.

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