7 skills for a successful law career

Jemma Smith, Editor
March, 2018

Competition to gain a training contract or pupillage is fierce. Give yourself the best chance of securing a job at a law firm or chambers by brushing up on these seven important skills

Commercial awareness

Legal recruiters cite commercial awareness as one of the most important attributes a candidate can possess. Commercial awareness means possessing knowledge of current developments in local, national and world business, particularly any issues that may impact a law firm and its clients.

Law 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, will expect 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.

You can improve your commercial awareness by:

  • becoming a committee member of a university club or society, in a position where you can help to organise events
  • browsing specialist websites such as RollOnFriday, LawCareers.Net, The Lawyer, Legal Cheek, Legal Week and Legal Futures
  • gaining work experience at a commercial organisation such as a bar, call centre, department store or, if possible, a law firm
  • going on a gap year, as this will help to develop your budgeting, scheduling and cost-cutting skills, and also give you an international perspective on business issues
  • joining industry-specific forums that allow you to attend 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, Panorama, Dragons' Den and The Apprentice.

You'll be expected to show commercial awareness from the start of the application process by demonstrating a thorough knowledge of the firm you're applying to. It's also likely that you'll be tested on your commercial awareness 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?


Strong oral and written communication skills are vital 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 when 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.

You should also develop interpersonal skills. A lot of the projects you work on will require a team effort, so you must be able to build strong working relationships with colleagues. Getting involved in any team activity, for example a sport, should help to improve your communication ability.

Attention to detail

A sharp eye for accuracy is crucial to the success of your legal career. A single word out of place can change the meaning of a clause or contract, while misspelt or ungrammatical emails, letters or documents can give clients a bad impression, costing your firm their business.

When applying for jobs or training contracts bear in mind 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 such as newsletters and magazines and get used to going through your own work with a fine-tooth comb.

Time management

To stay on top of your challenging workload and meet demanding deadlines you'll need excellent organisation and time management skills. You need to be an efficient multi-tasker with the ability to juggle competing priorities. You'll also need a solid work ethic, as hours can be long.

There are a number of ways to practise effective time management. Making to-do lists and prioritising tasks in order to complete multiple projects is one way. Alternatively, you could devise a revision timetable to manage university exams. Everyone manages their workload differently, but by the time you get to the interview stage you need to be able to demonstrate to potential employers the method that works best for you.

Getting involved in extracurricular activities or taking on a part-time job will not only fine-tune your time management, but it also demonstrates to employers that you're able to divide and manage your time effectively. They will also provide useful examples of successful time management, which can be used during interviews. However, you need to make sure that additional activities or work commitments don’t interfere with, or impact on, your studies. This, in itself, will be an excellent exercise in time management.

Academic ability

The profession is intellectually demanding and recruiters will be on the lookout for candidates who can process complex information and draw knowledgeable conclusions. You'll need to prove that you have the intellectual ability to cope with the pressures of the job and ordinarily you'll demonstrate this through your school and university achievements. The majority of top UK law firms require candidates to have at least a 2:1 but firms that accept a 2:2 do exist - however, you'll need to have some relevant legal work experience and argue your case.

If you think your academic record could do with a boost you could consider a Master of Laws (LLM). The LLM is in no way a guarantee of a training contract and isn't a prerequisite for employment. However, if you'd like to prove to potential employers that you're capable of more than your 2:2 undergraduate grade and you'd like to specialise in a certain area such as international law, criminal litigation or maritime law then an LLM might be for you.

While academic ability is important, recruiters increasingly appreciate well-rounded candidates so get involved in extracurricular activities, take up an interesting hobby, join a sports team, volunteer with the Citizens Advice network or learn a language. All of these things will give your application an edge.

Resilience and self-confidence

Legal careers are competitive. Demonstrate your commitment to a career in law through relevant work experience and remember that when it comes to standing out from the crowd, determination and enthusiasm go a long way - as does resilience and confidence in your own abilities.

Don't be overwhelmed by difficulties in securing a training contract or pupillage. This is a challenging career and it's not for everyone. 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?

Many students have the potential, but just don't know how to use examples to illustrate their abilities. It takes practice to get it right. For advice and tips take a look at writing a legal CV and cover letter.

Research and analysis

Reading large amounts of information, absorbing facts and figures, analysing material and then distilling it into something manageable is a feature of any law career, whether working for a commercial firm or practising as a criminal barrister.

The key is being able to identify what is relevant out of the mass of information and explain it clearly and concisely to your client. 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.

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