The top skills you need to be a solicitor

Last updated: 5 Feb 2024, 09:57

Show law recruiters you have what it takes to be a successful solicitor by including these essential skills in your applications.

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If you’re thinking about a career as a solicitor, your skills matter – starting with your trainee job application. Law firms’ recruiters will be looking for students and graduates with a wide range of skills: solicitors work with people in stressful situations, and whether those relate to financial matters, a family situation or employment, the job involves people and business skills as well as legal expertise.

Chloe Rose Johnson, early careers officer at Bird & Bird, told us: ‘One of the key steps before applying to law firms is to understand what skills they are looking for and to reflect on what examples you have that demonstrate each of those skills. You need to dedicate some time to self-reflection.

‘Consider what positions of responsibility you had, some key tasks or situations that you worked through, and any mistakes or learning opportunities you encountered for each experience. Use this to analyse what skills you learnt or developed, and then note this down.’

Read on to explore the skills you need to mention in your training contract application and how you can build them.

What key skills are needed to become a solicitor?

  1. Critical thinking
  2. Commercial awareness
  3. People skills
  4. Initiative
  5. Willingness to learn
  6. Attention to detail
  7. Organisational skills
  8. Resilience

1. Critical thinking

Essentially, this is about deepening your understanding and approaching situations with a dispassionate and questioning mindset. It’s being able to look beyond the obvious to what might be going below the surface and any wider implications. In the workplace, solicitors combine this way of thinking with commercial understanding to inform the advice they provide clients. ‘To understand a client’s business and the opportunities and risks as a result of new regulations and laws, you will need commercial awareness and critical thinking skills,’ says Chloe.

How to develop your critical thinking skills

Get into the habit of questioning information and reading widely around a topic. Check out source information and evaluate its reliability.

Chloe also recommends developing your critical thinking skills in a legal context by seeking out virtual job simulations and in-person work experience programmes.

2. Commercial awareness

‘Simply put, commercial awareness is an understanding of the business environment, such as current deals, transactions and issues,’ says Chloe. ‘A commercially aware lawyer will be able to give their clients legal advice on the opportunities and risks they may face within an area of expertise. For example, a tech lawyer will be aware of new AI regulations and technological advancements to confidently advise their clients.’

How to develop commercial awareness

Recruiters look for students with insights into current business news and what lies behind. Regularly read the business sections of the mainstream media and publications such as The Economist . Podcasts are also a great way to learn about business, politics and economics. As well as outlining different perspectives, they also explore the techniques that experts use to understand what’s going on in the world. If you find the news overwhelming, start by focusing on one industry that interests you.

Merely reading or listening to the news isn’t enough – you also need to think about it. ‘You need to be active in this process. Be critical by using a PESTLE (political, economic, social, technological, legal, and environmental) analysis to consider the external factors impacting law firms and their clients. Pair this with a SWOT analysis (where you consider strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) to identify the opportunities and risks for a law firm and their clients,’ says Chloe. ‘By adopting this framework when critiquing current trends and news updates, you can develop your commercial awareness in topics that interest you.’

3. People skills

Communication and relationship-building skills (aka ‘people skills’) are essential for a law career. ‘A lawyer may take part in business development initiatives, such as networking with existing and potential clients, presenting and pitching to potential clients, writing articles and blogs, and speaking at seminars and events,’ Chloe told us. ‘All of these initiatives develop client-firm relationships and create business for law firms.’

How to develop people skills

If you have a job, a volunteer role or are involved in a team or society, think about how you can support the people you work with better. Often this involves listening and helping them achieve what they need – whether that’s finding the jam in a supermarket or resolving a query in a call centre.

It’s also wise to get comfortable with networking – building connections and sharing knowledge. Look for ways in which you can build confidence interacting with people who are different from you – and remember that good communication involves listening as well as speaking.

4. Initiative

Initiative involves seeing a need and acting on it. To do this, you need to be able to think ahead and anticipate the consequences of next steps. You’ll sometimes need to work alone or with other trainees, and you’ll need to show initiative and be proactive to get things done.

Build confidence in your ability to take the initiative

The best way to develop your ability to take the initiative is to make something happen. Look for opportunities that involve planning change and implementing it. They needn’t be time-consuming: you could organise an event for your department or society, set up sporting events or develop a different way of doing things in your part-time job. In fact, part-time jobs and volunteering can offer more opportunities to build initiative as organisations may be smaller with fewer people working on projects.

5. Willingness to learn

This is not so much about your academic abilities – although solicitors do require a high level of intellect – but about being open to learning new things and developing both personally and professionally. It involves being excited to explore new areas of knowledge and curious about the world around you. It also involves being open to feedback and seeking ways to build on your strengths.

Show your willingness to learn

One good way of evidencing this quality is through actively trying new things: for example, joining a new student society or taking up a new hobby. During any part-time jobs or vacation schemes seek out feedback from your managers or more experienced colleagues. Developing your commercial awareness, as we suggest above, will also indicate your willingness to learn new things.

6. Attention to detail

If you’ve ever lost marks on an assignment because you didn’t spot a typo, you’ll know how important attention to detail is. Imagine the consequences of an error in a multimillion-pound legal contract and it’s clear why solicitors need this skill. ‘To meet client expectations and demands, you will need attention to detail,’ confirms Chloe.

Improve your attention to detail

‘Practise by creating soft deadlines for yourself during your studies or job, to give you the time to proofread your work before you need to press send,’ suggests Chloe. ‘Next, limit the distractions around you when working, such as turning off your phone notifications or going to a quieter space.’

It’s good to be able to spot typos but better if you can spot larger errors too, such as statements based on flawed evidence.

7. Organisational skills

Solicitors juggle numerous priorities at any one time and make careful decisions about what to focus on when. Most students do, too, so you’ll need to include some compelling examples in your application.

Developing your organisational skills

Think carefully about aspects of organisation you find difficult (for example, do you leave assignments to the last minute or lose track of essential notes?) and set yourself a challenge to address them one by one. Ask friends about the tools they use to organise themselves and look for apps that reward you for sticking to new habits. If you know you struggle with planning, seek support from academic skills tutors.

8. Resilience

Successful solicitors do require a certain level of resilience, as it can be a high-energy career with high stakes. Depending on the area of practice and where you work, you could need to work long hours to meet a client’s expectations or, in the case of family or criminal law, you could be dealing with clients in emotive situations. Being resilient means having the coping strategies to withstand pressure and stressful situations, including, crucially, when to seek help.

Boosting your resilience levels

Everyone’s levels of resilience fluctuate throughout their lives: it is never a case of ‘being a resilient person or not’ or never being affected by difficult situations. It is about developing ways to constructively manage your stress levels and to maintain your well-being. These strategies will be unique to everyone – what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another – but a good starting point would be to seek out stress awareness or resilience workshops run by your university’s student services team or students’ union.

How do you demonstrate your skills in your trainee solicitor job application and interview

In your application form or on your CV and covering letter, recruiters will expect you to point to times when you developed the skills they seek, highlighting how each activity developed a skill and the difference your contribution made to the outcome.

At later stages of the assessment, recruiters will not only be asking for examples of your skills but observing them in person. ‘As a candidate, you must be prepared to showcase your skills through different assessment styles; at an assessment centre, for example, you may be given an interview, group assessment, written assessment and group presentation. You will be assessed against a list of key competencies, so you want to aim to be strong in as many skills relevant to the role of a lawyer as you can,’ says Chloe.

The good news is that you will have several opportunities to demonstrate your potential. ‘Each of the assessments will test multiple skills in different ways,’ explains Chloe. ‘For example, you will likely be assessed on your communication skills across different assessments, including written communication in the written assessment, verbal communication in the interview and interpersonal communication in the group assessment.’

How do you know when you have sufficient evidence of a skill?

Students sometimes worry that they don’t have ‘enough’ examples of their skills. When completing an audit of your skills, keep in mind what we like to call the ‘three STAR rule’.

‘Practise explaining an example of a skill by describing what you did, why you did it or what steps you took, what the outcome was and what you learnt (otherwise known as the ‘STAR’ method ),’ says Chloe. ‘When you can think of three examples (and these examples can be from the same experience but as different tasks, situations or challenges) to talk about comfortably and confidently, you can move on to look at other skills. If, however, you only have one or two examples or struggle to identify if you have a skill, you should create actions points on what you need to develop. From work experience to volunteering, societies and hobbies, or even studying, you can develop your skills for a career in law through anything you do.’

It's important to remember, however, that law recruiters are not looking for you to have the polished skills set of a law firm partner; rather that you show you have the potential to develop those skills in the future.

Where next?

Thank you to Bird & Bird for contributing to this editorial feature – you can find out more about the law firm on its targetjobs employer hub and browse opportunities at other firms in our law search .

If you like what you’ve read, register on targetjobs to receive a personalised feed of advice, vacancies and events tailored to your interests – and the chance to follow law firms to hear of their opportunities sooner. In addition, like many law firms, Bird & Bird provides advice for candidates on their website: check out the firm’s employability hub, The Nest , too.

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