There’s more to being a lawyer than reading case law and writing briefs. While you’ll certainly need these skills as a working attorney, many prospective lawyers overlook soft skills when applying for jobs in the legal field.
But what are soft skills, why are they important, and how can you leverage them to stand out and get your dream job?
Think people skills
According to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, soft skills are personal qualities that allow you to communicate with other people. They include not only people and social skills, but also character and personality traits. They might also include your emotional intelligence, your ability to work with a team, and your attitude.
Essentially, soft skills are what make you, you. They’re the skills you’ve developed through life experiences, past jobs, and struggles you’ve faced. And they’re not necessarily the first thing you think to bring up when crafting a resume or approaching an interview.
Even so, they’re important to showcase when you’re looking for a legal job. In fact, soft skills might be even more important to employers than being involved in law review or other school groups. In Soft Skills for the Effective Lawyer, Randall Kiser stated that, consistent with the high priority employers place on soft skills, law review and journal experience are ranked among the least-helpful criteria for hiring.
Keep joining school groups and accepting other important positions like law review. But don’t forget the all-important soft skills these opportunities offer—and be sure to showcase them on your application.
Soft skills employers consider
The soft skills firms or employers value will often depend on their areas of practice. However, there are a few important skills most employers look for across the board. The ability to solve problems, work independently, and communicate effectively will serve you well.
“Key elements we look for when speaking with potential hires— whether summer associates or lateral partners—are comprehensive problem-solving skills, drive and determination, clear and direct communication, instinctive decision-making, a creative and forward-thinking thought process, openness to teamwork and collaboration, and a natural entrepreneurial spirit,” said Christine McWilliams, Los Angeles-based chief recruiting and professional development officer for Allen Matkins.
Other examples might include “teamwork, grit, resilience, empathy, leadership, communication, and a good sense of humor and perspective,” according to Liz Price, chief legal talent partner for Alston & Bird in Atlanta.
With such a wide range of soft skills available for you to advertise, remember that they should be relevant and conveyed throughout your application.
How to tout your talents
One of the best ways to make a first impression and stand out with your soft skills is through your cover letter and resume.
“Describe what actions you took in your prior roles,” said Price. “Tell me what you did, not just a title of the job or organization. Another good way is in your cover letter. You shouldn’t recap what I’ll see on your resume, but you can expound on an experience or two—no more—and highlight the soft skills you developed during that time.”
That’s right, your cover letter can expand on your resume. “Resumes serve as good platforms to showcase specific work experience and skill sets, but they can also showcase your strengths, your willingness to be a team player, and your desire to learn and grow your practice,” McWilliams said.
Don’t skip nonlegal assets
If you think extensive legal experience is the only thing employers consider when you’re a brand-new lawyer, think again. Employers value all-around nonlegal skills just as much as your ability to craft a good oral argument or write a motion.
“Any previous nonlegal job you can highlight that’s relevant to your practice, or would be valuable experience to your firm, is certainly worth noting,” said McWilliams. “For instance, a commercial real estate law firm like ours would potentially favor a candidate who used to work as a broker or a construction project manager or in an environmental field.”
Price agreed. “Prior work experience is a big plus, and you should be able to identify at least several aspects of your prior job that lend themselves to practicing law,” she said. “For example, if you were a teacher, you had to create a lesson plan with the end in mind—to teach a group of students who likely had varying styles of learning—all the while dealing with a range of constituencies, from students to parents to administrators There are many ways those experiences would translate well into being a lawyer.”
Whether you’ve been a tutor or a waiter, think about the skills your past positions have taught you. These could translate into better communication between you and clients or improved ability to meet tight deadlines.
Whatever the soft skill, it may help get you the job you want in the legal field.
Avoid irrelevant experience
Mowing your neighbor’s lawn or babysitting might be great first jobs, but employers look for relevant experiences.
If you can relate your experience as an entry-level worker to your legal application, that’s great. But stay away from mentioning jobs that sidetrack employers from their vision of you as a competent, important member of their team.
They can even be distracting. “If your previous jobs aren’t relevant, they may clutter your conversation,” McWilliams said. “Maybe it’s not so important if you cut your neighbors’ lawns every summer,” added Price. “But if you worked, for example, in a service industry, you likely interacted with customers and had to be client-focused, to communicate well, and to address situations that might have created some anxiety.”
The bottom line? Keep your application focused on skills lawyers use— even if those experiences came from nonlegal careers. Just be careful not to overdo it and to list irrelevant experiences that leave employers confused or uncertain about your skill set.
Keep building your soft skills
It’s never too late to develop your soft skills. Law school is filled with opportunities to keep progressing toward your future career. Think about joining leadership societies or becoming an editor for your school’s law review. Experiences that allow you to lead, learn, and collaborate with others are great assets for your cover letter and resume. And when it comes time to interview for your position, you’ll have plenty to talk about.
“In addition to a strong and successful education background,” said McWilliams, “candidates need to invest their time in relevant organizations and thought leadership activities. This could be serving as editor at your law school newspaper or journal, volunteering for pro bono programs, writing articles on topics relevant to your desired practice, joining boards of nonprofits, or volunteering on a political campaign.
“More importantly,” added McWilliams, “seeking leadership roles within those organizations—such as committee chairs—shows a determination to succeed.”