'You can be the best technical lawyer but if you cannot effectively communicate with clients while under pressure, building a successful practice will be challenging.’
Read the TARGETjobs employer hubs and you’ll notice that some law firms have specific competencies that they are looking for in their future trainee solicitors, such as creativity, enthusiasm and determination. But some skills are required by all commercial law firms, such as teamworking skills, communication skills and commercial awareness. The key is use your research skills to find out about the law firm, and find out what skills are needed to be a lawyer and future partner at that firm.
The important skills, abilities and qualities graduate recruiters look for in future lawyers
Good communication skills for lawyers...
Communication skills – both oral and written – are important to any successful lawyer, and it is up to you to demonstrate this at all stages of the application process. On the application itself give clear and concise answers to the questions. At the assessment day/interview stage answer further questions in an unambiguous and succinct manner. ‘Trainees can expect daily interactions with numerous different colleagues and clients on the phone, in person or via email so the ability to adapt their communication style is vital,' explains Puneet Tahim, senior recruitment coordinator at Latham & Watkins. ‘They will receive instruction from various people on a wide range of topics therefore their ability to listen effectively is also crucial to their success – as is their ability to interpret and summarise large volumes of complex information. They are expected to develop these skills as they progress through their career and take on greater managerial responsibility.’
...particularly with clients
‘The communication skills needed to give effective advice to clients are just as important as the core technical skills; clients want you to understand their business and to communicate your advice in a way they
can understand,’ adds Mahrie Webb, partner at Simmons & Simmons.
You can be the best technical lawyer but if you cannot effectively and empathetically communicate with clients and colleagues while under pressure, building a successful practice will be challenging,’ explains Lora Froud, partner at Macfarlanes.
Graduate recruiters look for candidates with the potential to work well with their clients. ‘Although my grades were not the strongest of the candidates, I was able to show that I was a well-rounded individual with strong interpersonal skills and commercial awareness,’ says Luke Hurren, associate solicitor at Mills & Reeve. ‘That’s not to say that academic ability is not important but being able to show an ability to communicate and work with people is also relevant. Being able to understand your clients’ needs and communicate with them in a way that they appreciate is crucial. The ability to adjust your tone as necessary in written and verbal correspondence is therefore very useful.’
James Burns, senior partner at Clyde & Co, backed this up when he told TARGETjobs Law: ‘Being a successful lawyer is as much about being a good business person as it is about understanding the law, and building good, strong personal relationships is a vital part of being successful in business. My advice is to get as close as you possibly can to your clients and understand their business – it helps you to become a better lawyer. One of the things that really shaped my early career was going on a client secondment for nine months.’ Kate Macnab, criminal solicitor and director at Albin & Co, told TARGETjobs Law: ‘Criminal work usually involves lots of client contact, for example, visiting prisons and police stations, and attending conferences with counsel (ie barristers). The ability to help and identify with others is important in this field.’
‘Fundamentally, when working on a transaction, you need to connect with clients and lawyers on the other side of the table as well as the rest of your team. Your client could come from anywhere – you could be in the boardroom with established grandees of the City or budding entrepreneurs from a tech company in San Francisco. You have to inspire confidence in people so they can trust your advice.’ points out Vica Irani, corporate partner at Jones Day.
Commercial awareness, also known as commercial acumen or commercial sense
Law firms look for candidates who have a genuine interest in how businesses work and how this may affect the clients you will be working with. They will want to see evidence of your sense of the big picture so be prepared by keeping up to date with relevant news stories in the business world and expect to be asked your views at interview stage. When a big news story hits the headlines, ask yourself how this may affect the law firm in question. Also, check a firm’s website for press releases on recent transactions completed.
‘Gone are the days when being a lawyer was simply about providing fine legal advice to clients. Today’s lawyers have to be business-orientated individuals who understand that the firm they are working for are looking to make an annual profit/turnover and the clients they are working for are looking for financially beneficial solutions. Aspiring trainee solicitors should have it very clear in their mind that it is of paramount importance that they have an awareness of commerciality when working on cases and transactions,' says Anup Vithlani, head of graduate recruitment and development at Trowers & Hamlins.
Stamina, energy and resilience
‘The lawyers who do best at work are those who sacrifice themselves a bit; it’s the nature of the job to work long hours and do whatever is necessary to meet client deadlines. It’s the energetic and the willing who go furthest,’ says Simon Levine, partner and global Co-CEO at DLA Piper. Follow the advice of a trainee solicitor surveyed in the TARGETjobs Law Recent Graduate Survey: ‘Develop your personal life. Academic achievement is a given, but your soft skills set you apart. Do something outside law: get a job, join a choir, participate in a team – show that you have the motivation to do more than just study (but that you can maintain high academic standards at the same time). Everyone at my firm is proactive and involved in something.’
‘It is important to respond to stress in a productive way. Also, learn to rely on the resources available as that will make life easier and ultimately less stressful,’ a second-year trainee at Norton Rose Fulbright told TARGETjobs.
Tenacity is an important quality for lawyers
‘It’s important to have faith in your own abilities and to keep going. While being sensitive and being able to relate to your peers and colleagues are important attributes, ultimately it’s important to strike a balance between being empathetic and having a thick skin,’ says Jonathan Moss, head of the transport sector at DWF.
Knowing your limits
‘I like trainees who can tell me what they are thinking, but more importantly recognise when they don’t have all of the answers. Being brave enough to say you don’t know – instead of being tempted to over-state something – is an important skill in a junior lawyer,’ states Jane Childs, partner at Mayer Brown.
An entrepreneurial instinct
Cathy Bell-Walker, partner at Allen & Overy, advises training contract candidates to be business minded: ‘Be on the lookout for opportunities and not necessarily opportunities that someone makes for you. While you’re a student, look for business opportunities. Be entrepreneurial. Linked to this is common sense. It’s not easy to learn it unless you have seen it – remember to ask why a decision was made, not just take the instruction without understanding the motivation.’
All lawyers are required to have attention to detail
Trainee solicitors need a good eye for detail to be able to communicate effectively on paper with both colleagues and clients, advises the graduate recruitment officer at DLA Piper. ‘Attention to detail is part of providing a good quality service. Clients will form opinions about lawyers and the firms they work for based on the quality of work and communication. Errors in documents, emails, etc, create a negative impression. In addition, a good eye for detail is important within the sector, as what may appear to be minor mistakes can affect the meaning of contracts and clauses.’
One of the skills that recruiters test when screening applications and at interview is a candidate’s spelling, punctuation and grammar. An application for a vacation placement or training contract littered with mistakes is an immediate turn-off and may not be considered because of this.
The ability to work in a team...
Working as part of a team is a crucial skill for successful lawyers. Demonstrating your ability as a team player is important in securing a training contract. At interview you should draw from examples that show your contribution to a team and how you deal effectively with others, whether it be as secretary of your university law society, playing on a university sports team, or a team project undertaken for your degree.
...and to lead a team
‘Solicitors in my field need the leadership skills to hold the attention of different parties (shareholders, creditors, directors) with competing priorities,’ points out Richard Hodgson, insolvency partner at Linklaters LLP.
All recruiters all looking for a commitment to a career in law; they want to see that you've taken steps to check that this career path is right for you – that your decisions are based on something concrete (eg time spent within a law firm) not on something spurious (being an avid fan of Suits).
There's no getting around it – law is an intellectually demanding profession and recruiters want to see evidence of your intellectual ability before taking your application further.
What makes a good high street solicitor?
High street firms will have a slightly different list of key competencies to large, commercial law firms – it comes down to the different type of work and clients. Smaller, local firms tend to have a strong family law, private client, personal injury, crime and conveyancing practice at the heart of their business, and need to recruit trainees with good people skills, advocacy skills and a willingness to undertake early responsibility. ‘The best aspect of family law is the opportunity to interact closely with clients – clients can be working with you for up to two years – so the ability to relate to people is essential,’ says Michelle Mann, partner, Field Seymour Parkes. Long working hours are not exclusive to corporate law, as Kate Macnab points out: ‘Lawyers working in criminal law have to be available out of hours, which can sometimes make maintaining a work/life balance challenging. You have to be prepared to keep your telephone on and you might need to attend an interview at a police station at short notice during unsociable hours. While some days might not be very busy, on others you might be preparing trials at the office into the evening.’
In other news: massive changes to the way solicitors qualify are on the horizon. Do you know how they will affect you? Find out here.