While a thorough knowledge of the law is incredibly important, it isn't the only ingredient for a successful legal career. Learn more about the skills you'll need to be a lawyer
1. Commercial awareness
One of the most important skills lawyers need, it basically means possessing knowledge of current developments in local, national and world business, particularly issues that impact a law firm and its clients.
'Law is about understanding your client’s business and providing viable solutions. It is therefore important to have a wide breadth of knowledge of current events to fully grasp the context of the work that you are involved in as a lawyer,' explains Chloe Edwards, trainee solicitor at White & Case LLP.
Firms expect employees to market their services to prospective clients, as well as develop trusting relationships with existing ones. Ultimately, law firms are businesses, so lawyers must appreciate the commercial importance of meeting deadlines, keeping costs low and handling information confidentially.
A client, meanwhile, expects their lawyer to fully understand how their business is run, and which wider social, political and economic issues may affect them. If applicable, lawyers must also appreciate the short, medium and long-term implications of their client's business proposal, and think strategically about the organisation's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This enables the lawyer to provide pragmatic, business-minded legal advice to the best of their ability.
'Clients expect lawyers to be more than just legal advisors. You need to fully understand the nuances of the political, economic, social and technological landscapes, how this is evolving, and how this affects your clients' businesses,' adds Chloe.
Improve your commercial awareness by:
- becoming a committee member of a university club or society
- browsing specialist websites such as RollOnFriday, LawCareers.Net, The Lawyer, Legal Cheek and Legal Futures
- gaining work experience at a commercial organisation such as a bar, call centre, shop or, if possible, a law firm
- going on a gap year, as this will develop your budgeting, scheduling and cost-cutting skills, and give you an international perspective on business issues
- attending careers events that allow you to participate in seminars and network with business professionals
- listening to business-related podcasts or radio shows, such as BBC Radio 4's Today programme
- reading business publications such as the Financial Times and The Economist, and the business pages of a daily newspaper such as The Times
- watching business-related television programmes such as Newsnight and Panorama.
You'll be expected to show commercial awareness during the application process by demonstrating a thorough knowledge of the firm you're applying to. It's also likely that you'll be tested during an assessment day. You may be asked questions such as:
- What business deal or story has most interested you recently?
- In x business deal what role did the firm play?
- How could the firm prepare for an economic downturn?
2. Attention to detail
Accuracy is a vital law skill and is pivotal to the success of your legal career. A word out of place can change the meaning of a clause or contract, while misspelt or ungrammatical emails, letters or documents give clients a bad impression, costing your firm their business.
'Attention to detail is important as a lawyer and it's a skill that improves with experience,' says Chloe.
When applying for jobs or training contracts remember that employers look for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors. If your cover letter is vague, too long or littered with spelling mistakes, a recruiter may question what a potential client would make of your letter of advice.
To improve your attention to detail, volunteer your proofing services to student publications and get used to going through your own work thoroughly. Chloe also suggests 'frequently read articles, such as those from the Financial Times. This will help your fluency on complex subjects and will therefore make it easier to spot errors. Even brain training games (like sudoku) can help narrow your focus on identifying details.'
Strong oral and written communication skills are crucial to a legal career and without them you'll struggle to carry out the duties of a solicitor effectively. Excellent listening ability is also important when working with clients, as you need to be able to build relationships and engender confidence.
You need to be a confident speaker when arguing a case in court, negotiating settlements and explaining complex information to clients. You'll have to use persuasive, clear and succinct language. Public speaking is also required in the role of a barrister. To hone this skill while at university, volunteer as the spokesperson in group activities or get involved in debate teams.
Written ability is equally important when drafting letters and legal documents. You'll need to know technical and legal language and be able to convey it clearly and concisely. To improve your written communication skills, get involved with your university's law society. You could take meeting minutes, draft emails, write newsletters or manage social media accounts.
Chloe points out that most of your work as a lawyer will be done alongside others, 'so being able to communicate well with your team will output more effective work more efficiently. This requires every team member knowing their role in a matter and feeling comfortable in performing that role. This requires good communication.'
Winning cases is a team effort. Solicitors need to collaborate with colleagues and partners, as well as liaise with clients. Barristers need to foster a close working relationship with their clerks and will often work high-profile cases alongside other barristers. The ability to work as part of a team is an essential legal skill and you'll need to be able to deal with people from all levels of the legal hierarchy, from trainees and pupils, to members of the judiciary.
Solicitors are constantly working in teams, consisting of trainees, associates, partners and (depending on the firm) lawyers from other jurisdictions,' says Jack Yusuf, trainee solicitor at White & Case LLP. 'It is therefore important for a trainee to have the social skills to be able to work effectively, not just within their own demographic, but across different age ranges and cultures too.'
It's also crucial that clients trust their legal representatives, so you'll need to be personable, persuasive and polite.
The easiest way to hone your people skills is to join a team. This could be a sports team, drama club or a choir - anything that enables you to work with others. Alternatively, get involved with editing the student newspaper or join a debating society. Part-time work in a customer service role is another way to improve this skill, as is volunteering. Discover how to balance work and study.
5. Information analysis and research
Reading large amounts of information, absorbing facts and figures, analysing material and distilling it into something manageable is a feature of any law career.
Being able to identify what is relevant out of a mass of information and explain it clearly and concisely to your client is key. Hone this skill by taking large documents or long news articles and making five-point bulleted lists of the most important themes.
Research also plays a huge role in a lawyer's day-to-day job. You'll need research skills when doing the background work on a case, drafting legal documents and advising clients on complicated issues. Use your time at university to familiarise yourself with internet and library resources and build up a network of contacts. As a newly qualified solicitor or barrister industry connections can prove to be a useful source of advice.
Researching points of law, drafting legal documents and contracts, managing case files, meeting clients, attending court and networking with legal professionals - it's fair to say that the life of a solicitor or barrister is one big juggling act.
'Being able to prioritise and manage time well are crucial skills,' says Chloe. 'As lawyers charge by time, being able to allocate your time to what is most important is extremely valuable.'
You'll have plenty of opportunity to hone this skill throughout your training and work experience. To demonstrate it to employers, mention how you held down a part-time job or was a membership of a society while studying. Or perhaps you organised an event.
7. Creative problem solving
'Working in law, you will often encounter unforeseen issues that require creative problem solving, especially where a solution is not obvious from the outset,' explains Chloe. And while you may think that the legal profession provides little outlet for an individual's creative talent, this isn't the case. No matter which legal career you choose you'll frequently have to think outside the box to get the job done.
As experienced solicitors and barristers will tell you, the best course of action isn't always the easiest or the most obvious. To outmanoeuvre opposing parties and secure a positive result for your client you'll need to employ your creative thinking and problem-solving skills on a daily basis.
A good way to develop these abilities is to take part in student competitions, such as mooting, become a student representative or gain a position on your students' union.
Other useful skills
- Resilience and self-confidence - to stand out from the crowd you'll need resilience and a confidence in your own abilities. Don't be overwhelmed by difficulties in securing a training contract or pupillage. Have the confidence to apply (and re-apply if necessary), seeking and acting upon feedback. Do you need to develop your skills further or gain a better understanding of the profession? Do you know how to sell your experience against the skills required?
- Initiative - while being able to work successfully as part of a team is essential, there'll be instances where you’ll have to show initiative and independence. You'll sometimes have to make quick decisions, without conferring with colleagues making using your own initiative an important legal competency.
- The ability to work under pressure - solicitors and barristers manage heavy workloads to tight deadlines and the outcome of this work has the potential to have a lasting impact on the lives of their clients.
Thanks to law courses, such as LLBs, LLMs, and conversion courses, as well as legal work experience many students and graduates already have these skills and the potential to succeed, but they just don't know how to use relevant examples to illustrate these abilities. It takes practice to get it right. For advice and tips take a look at writing a legal CV and cover letter.
Find out more
- Discover how to become a lawyer.
- Learn more about the reality of working in law.
- Take a look at other soft skills employers want.