Pardon my blatant use of jargon as an attention-grabbing device. I happened upon this list of top ten legal skills and it got me thinking.
According to About.com, the first skill a lawyer needs to make his or her own is oral communication. Four of the five listed sub-skills involve imparting information, while only one of the skills, tagging along at the end of the list, is effective or “keen” listening. In my opinion, the list is weighted in the wrong direction. Listening is paramount. I believe that active and effective listening must be precede any attempt to impart information. How can you convey clear and concise ideas, communicate persuasively, advocate the correct position, or master legal terminology if you don’t have a grasp on the problem or the unmet need? This is a skill that I believe many lawyers are sorely lacking.
I like the next skill – written communication. It is my bread and butter. And I like how About.com organizes the sub-skills, assuming that primacy equals importance. First, master stylistic and mechanical aspects of writing. Next, master the fundamentals of grammar. Next, learn to write organized and effective prose. Finally, after all of the foregoing are absorbed, draft effective legal documents. I do not believe that you an accomplish the last skill on the list until you have a firm and steadfast grasp on the first three skills, although I might place grammar ahead of writing organized and effective prose.
Three. Client Service. This skill is applicable to all businesses and not just to the law. Client service should take precedence when operating a roadside lemonade stand to heading up a Fortune 500 company. You must remember who your clients are and what matters most to them. The About.com list places rainmaking at the top, which makes sense in a chicken-or-the-egg sort of way, but I believe that the servicing of existing clients is far more important than netting new ones. To me, customer service and customer communication are paramount and repeat business is gold.
Analytical and logical reasoning. To an extent, this skill can be taught. However, I believe it is really more of a trait than a skill. About.com refers to this process as assimilating large volumes of complex information in an efficient and effective manner. The importance of logicality is not unique to the practice of law, but is particularly well utilized in our field. The more complex the problem, the more valuable the reasoning process becomes. Argument structure and inductive and deductive reasoning are of value in crafting legal arguments. But I dare you to identify someone who wouldn’t be aided by an enhanced ability to persuade another of the value of their point of view. Heck, these skills would assist any person negotiating the trials of everyday family life.
No doubt about it – legal research is unique and vital to our industry. One must learn proper research techniques with an eye trained on emerging technologies and information management. One also must be able to analyze what is netted from the research. This analysis is aided by the logical reasoning skill outlined in the prior paragraph. On the other hand, learning proper citation form, effective statutory interpretation and proper use of legal software are mechanical skills that can be absorbed easily with instruction. I also think that the list is missing something. I firmly believe that there is a creative component in the researching process. The best researchers understand this and employ creativity to their benefit. Thus, I would recommend that About.com include creativity in researching, writing and argument crafting.
Skill six is technology. This includes facility with legal software, communication technology, electronic discovery, document management and litigation support, legal research software and the Internet. I have no argument with this one. I also accept that being a good lawyer requires developing tech know-now and making wise technology decisions. I am somewhat surprised to find this down in the sixth position. Even in my senior, near dinosaur state, I recognize that technology is racing forward at a rapid rate. Many lawyers who are failing to apprehend the evolution are being left behind.
The next skill is knowledge of substantive law. While I concede that this aids efficient practice in a chosen area, I do not rate this as a skill, but rather a convenience. A lawyer possessing the other skills can obtain substantive knowledge in any area of law. I would not necessarily trust the result of a lawyer who depends entirely on their own “substantive” knowledge of the law. Since no attorney can be an expert on every area of law or even every nuance in one area of law, I would rather have a creative, logical, thorough attorney with great skill in research and technology who is not afraid to dig deep into a new area of the law to acquaint themselves with the latest developments.
Time management is also a useful skill, not only for lawyers but for anyone faced with more than one task. If you have a strong work ethic and are able to multi-task, juggle priorities and meet tight deadlines, you will find success in any endeavor. The first cousin of time management, organization, also comes in handy in accomplishing any task, not just law-related pursuits.
Finally, occupying last place, my favorite “skill” is being a team player. Even solo practitioners are not alone: there are support staff, opposing counsel, clients and court personnel to negotiate. The three “C”‘s are highlighted in the article: collaboration; coordination; and, cultivation. Being a team player means recognizing a common goal and sublimating personal needs to the good of the whole in reaching that goal. Working effectively and efficiently with others will only make a lawyer’s job easier.
I would add to this list a willingness to be open to new areas of law, technology and practice. I have seen many lawyers fall into a “rut” and lose that elasticity that new lawyers seem to have in abundance upon exiting law school. I am unsure whether it is human nature to become “set in our ways” or an evolution unique to the law practice. I believe that the best lawyers can roll with legal and social change, are willing employ creativity to solve emerging issues and are ready to reinvent themselves and their practices to address emerging needs. In the process, the listed attributes can only help.