The seasonal break allows us time to reflect on what we’ve achieved and where we’re heading. If your review suggests you need to develop your soft skills, this can be an uncomfortable prospect – particularly for those working in such a tough profession as the Bar. But fear not: this article draws on eight months of research with barristers and solicitors for my book, Essential Soft Skills for Lawyers (Globe Law and Business: 2020), and shares practical insights from a project with the Managing Partners’ Forum exploring skills gaps among leaders of professional services firms.

Change is a constant

You will have noticed the dizzying array of changes foisted onto us in recent times. The pandemic forced us to acquire many technology skills and constantly update them in the relentless rate of change and heightened competition.

What we also learned was the importance of soft skills – how we manage ourselves and interact with others. We saw first-hand how a digital divide can cause problems in creating, maintaining and growing relationships. Those new to the profession missed out on acquiring these skills while the world was in lockdown. I know this from many sources, including the calls I had from barristers seeking help with networking, prospecting and winning new work.

So, what’s the evidence on soft skills?

A Stanford Research Institute/Carnegie Mellon report (2007) revealed that 75% of long-term job success in industry and commerce depends on the mastery of soft skills and just 25% on technical skills.

Citing the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs, a 2018 Forbes article by Avil Beckford predicted the top 10 skills demanded in 2020 to be: (1) complex problem-solving; (2) critical thinking; (3) creativity; (4) people management; (5) coordination with others; (6) emotional intelligence; (7) judgement and decision-making; (8) service orientation; (9) negotiation; and (10) cognitive flexibility.

Also in 2018, a report by Bersin™ Deloitte noted that employers are as likely to select candidates for their adaptability, culture fit and growth potential as for in-demand technical skills. Google, Amazon and Microsoft have highlighted the importance of learnability – curiosity and a thirst for knowledge – as a key indicator of career potential. A conclusion was ‘jobs that rely on cognitive skills are now fair game for automation’.

In The Human Edge (Pearson Business: 2019) Greg Orme argued that there are four distinctly human skills that will become increasingly important in protecting us from automation: consciousness, curiosity, creativity and collaboration. On the dangers of being too specialist I would recommend Range – How generalists triumph in a specialized world by David Epstein (Macmillan: 2019).

What soft skills do lawyers need?

Maybe you are persuaded of the importance of soft skills – but where to start? Soft skills for the legal profession can be classified into these groups:

  • Personal skills eg goal setting, making an impression and creativity.
  • Communication eg non-verbal communication, active listening and storytelling.
  • Building relationships eg creating rapport and trust, navigating difference and diversity.
  • Leadership eg visioning, empowering, delegation, coaching and feedback.
  • Business development eg marketing, selling and relationship management.

I found that the overarching theme to the training needs of leaders of professional services firms is firmly in the soft skills space – the need to achieve consensus through collaboration.

Top three soft skillsets for barristers

1. Improve self-awareness (and emotional quotient)

Emotional intelligence (also known as emotional quotient or EQ) is a technical term covering many soft skills. Tested alongside 33 other important skills, EQ subsumes most of them, including time management, decision-making and communication.

EQ accounts for 58% of performance in all types of jobs and is the single biggest predictor and the strongest driver of leadership and personal excellence. Ninety per cent of high performers are also high in EQ – people with high EQs make more money. However, only 36% of people tested can accurately identify their emotions as they happen.

We can break emotional intelligence down into: recognising our own emotions (self-awareness); managing our own emotions (self-control); recognising the emotions of others (empathy); and managing the emotions of others (relationship management).

All of us need to be self-aware and know our style, strengths and weaknesses; how well we adapt and function under stress; and how others perceive us – team members, subordinates, leaders, referrers or clients. Interestingly most law firms recognise the importance of emotional intelligence, but none (at the time of my research) provided assessment tools or training interventions.

2. Enhance communication

References abound to the ability of lawyers to communicate effectively with peers, team members and clients – from conversational and social skills, managing difficult conversations, networking, and commercial conversations, to providing feedback and active listening.

Those who have strong EQ skills will naturally be better communicators, so there is a link between these two skills. So much of our interactions rely on non-verbal communication, so a deep understanding of the impact of expressions, posture, gestures and even tone, volume and pace of speech is required.

Other communication skills include the ability to influence and persuade. This goes beyond simply presenting evidence that can be forensically analysed in court, to crafting and sharing compelling and meaningful stories, and enthralling strangers in conversations at events. (On networking skills, I’ll draw your attention to a fabulous book written by a young corporate lawyer of Russian origin working in the City of London, Great Networking by Alisa Grafton (LID Business Media: 2022).) The list goes on: to create a personal brand; to present ideas with impact – be it recording a webinar or live, in front of 500 conference delegates etc.

We must also be able to adapt our communication style for culturally diverse groups, and there are differences in communication styles between generations and in digital environments. (On the latter, there is fantastic advice in Digital Body Language – How to build trust and connection no matter the distance by Erica Dhawan (HarperCollins: 2021).)

3. Be goal-focused

To achieve all of the above, you need goals for managing your time, career and practice development. There are skills here too: analysing and assessing the situation – both within internal and external environments; the ability to sift through overwhelming data and properly assess appropriate and reliable information (lawyers will score well here). We also need to be able to set goals and break them down into bite-sized pieces, perhaps integrating them into a planning or workflow system.

My final tip for this article is to keep these goals front of mind. You will need to constantly check them against data and evidence to see if you are still on track; and know when it might be appropriate to revise or update them. 


Reflection and self-coaching
Some sets provide coaching resources to help you undertake this reflection and course correction or this may be something you are investing in yourself (there are experienced coaches who specialise in working with barristers). If you’re self-coaching, a good place to start is to adopt a framework such as John Whitmore’s GROW model:
  • What are my Goals?
  • What do I hope to achieve? And by when? How will I measure success?
  • Think beyond financial and profile goals. How do you want your practice to change? What types of clients and work do you want?
  • What is the current Reality?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses?
  • How do my clients and colleagues perceive me?
  • What’s happening within my market? What are my competitors doing?
  • What are my Options?
  • What choices do I have? What are my priorities?
  • What are the different strategies I could adopt?
  • What innovative approaches could I adopt?
  • Do I really have the Will to change?
  • How much time can I devote to learning and changing?
  • Will I commit to change – regardless of how busy I become?