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Professional Development

What Makes for a Great Transferable Skill? How to Uncover Even a Niche Lawyer’s Hard and Soft Skills

By Annie Little

Are you stuck in your current practice area or are your skills transferable?

transferable skills

Lawyers have a very real fear of being pigeonholed. They talk as though getting stuck in a particular practice area is outside their control and irreversible — like accidentally stepping into quicksand on a leisurely stroll.

And after they’ve been stuck in their expertise for a while? They’ve convinced themselves that they have zero transferable skills.

Yet in their next breath, those same lawyers tell me, “I don’t have the specific experience in the job posting, but I know I can do the job.”

So What’s Actually True Here?

Are attorneys irredeemably stuck in their current practice areas or are their skill sets transferable? To answer this question, we need a clear understanding of hard skills, soft skills, and how employers view them.

What Are Hard Skills?

Hard skills are the easily quantifiable skills we gain through our education, technical training and experience. Generally speaking, your hard skills relate to your law degree, the number of years you’ve been practicing and types of matters you’ve handled.

When you’re reading through a job description, it’s easy to jump to the qualifications section and see how you measure up — or not.

This is the point where most lawyers resign themselves to slogging away in their current job for the next 30 years. But what if I told you that employers care less about your hard skills and more about your soft skills?

What Are Soft Skills?

Most lawyers have no problem identifying their hard skills. But when it comes to soft skills, most attorneys don’t fully understand what those are, let alone what theirs are. That’s understandable considering how difficult it is to quantify soft skills.

Soft skills describe how you use your hard skills.

You might even think of soft skills as the adverbs of the career world. Keep in mind that you can always Google “in-demand soft skills” if you want to see more detailed lists or check the latest employer trends.

Soft skills come in countless varieties, but here are a few of the most sought-after ones:

  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Adaptability
  • Problem-solving
  • Creativity
  • Work ethic
  • Interpersonal skills (empathy, humor, patience)
  • Time management
  • Leadership
  • Attention to detail

You’ve probably seen these soft skills referenced in job postings. Maybe you skimmed over them thinking they were too fluffy, amorphous or self-explanatory to warrant your attention.

But soft skills are a huge factor in hiring one person over another. They are also skills that apply across practice areas and industries.

In other words, your soft skills are the basis for your transferable skills.

The key to unlocking the power of your transferable skills lies in your ability to effectively describe your soft skills to employers.

Connecting the Dots for Employers With Real-World Examples

As you may have learned by now, simply stating on your resume that you’re an “excellent communicator” or an “expert problem-solver” isn’t enough. You need to show employers how you communicate or how you solve problems using real-world evidence.

When you do an effective job of explaining the unique way you complete tasks, employers are able to see how your soft skills apply to the work you’d do for them. The best way to demonstrate your soft skills is by way of example.

Don’t be afraid to include examples of cases or deals that aren’t squarely within the type of work done by the employer.

When I was applying for a commercial real estate position during the Great Recession, I showcased my soft skills of persistence, resourcefulness, collaboration and leadership by describing how I became my firm’s resident expert on financing seafaring vessels.

That example proved successful because I focused on how I solved the problem of financing the construction of a pirate ship for my bank client. (Yes, a literal pirate ship.)

I also made clear the benefits enjoyed by relevant parties to the transaction so that the new employer could clearly envision the value I’d bring to their organization.

  • My bank client was able to close a complex and specialized loan that it was able to sell on the secondary market.
    The new firm also had commercial lending clients with complex deals they sold on the secondary market.
  • Using soft skills, I helped my law firm become known for being one of the few capable of properly closing those kinds of deals, which led to more deals from new and existing clients.
    The new firm saw me as someone who can create repeat business for them.
  • My employer was able to rely on me to figure out how to properly close a novel and complicated deal without a lot of hand-holding.
    The new employer valued having a lawyer who was a self-starter and problem-solver.

Not only did I receive the job offer, but I also edged out several candidates with twice as much real estate experience.

It’s entirely possible that one of those more senior lawyers could have beaten me out for the position if they’d only known how to effectively leverage their soft skills.

But they didn’t. Instead, a junior attorney with fewer hard skills leveraged her soft skills to help the employer clearly see how it would benefit from hiring her.

So do yourself a favor. Before you count yourself out for that job you wish you had, do some digging to uncover your own metaphorical pirate ship. Focus on those soft skills.
321 Illustration ©

More Tips on Attorney at Work

“Using Soft Skills to Become In-House Clients’ Favorite” by Susan Kostal

“Lawyers Suck at Listening: 3 Ways to Turn It Around” by Annie Little

“Put Your Creativity to Work” (Yes, You)” by Jay Harrington

“Ways to Push Beyond Your Comfort Zone in Managing Your Career” by Wendy Werner

“This Mindset Is a Must for New Partners” by Yuliya LaRoe

“Managing Up” by Wendy Werner

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Photo of Annie Little Annie Little

Annie Little is a lawyer career coach dedicated to helping attorneys articulate their transferable skills since founding JD Nation in 2012. She’s also the creator of the Make Your Next Move™ program for attorneys who want a practical process to find and land their ideal job. You can follow her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

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