7 skills for a successful law career

Jemma Smith, Editor
December, 2016

The legal sector is well known for its competitive nature. Brush up on these skills to give yourself the best chance of job success

Commercial awareness

Legal recruiters cite commercial awareness as one of the most important attributes a candidate can possess. As a lawyer it's essential that you see the big picture, meaning that you not only need a firm grasp of legal issues, but also of the business environment in which your firm operates. Understanding the academic side of law is no longer enough, business acumen is vital as clients often expect a commercial solution to their problems.

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.

To impress, you must show an interest in, and knowledge of, law, business and wider issues such as current affairs and be able to give an opinion on the stories that interest you. Keep up to date with the industry by:

  • signing up to legal publications to help you follow market trends
  • setting up Google alerts for the firms you want to work for
  • following these firms on social media
  • reading the literature on their websites.


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 need 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 the 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 skills.

Attention to detail

A sharp eye for accuracy is crucial to the success of your legal career. A single word out of place can completely change the meaning of a clause or contract and 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 proofreading and 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 look-out 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 high-profile 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 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.

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 then to 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.

The essential guide to studying law


A Guide to a Career in Law

Discover how to become a solicitor or barrister, read about life at some of the UK's top firms and take a look at the A-Z of training opportunities.

Find out more