5 Essential Skills for Lawyers


5 Essential Skills for Lawyers

This site is all about skills.  Sure, that takes on a number of forms, but ultimately what I’m about is trying to provide an added layer to your legal practice.  One that goes beyond knowledge of the law and into the realm of how to think, speak and act in ways that will ultimately benefit us as lawyers.

So I thought I’d put together a shortlist of skills that I think we need to master.  Brevity is not my strong point, so limiting myself to 5 seemed a good way to go.  Without further ado…

Lawyers Must Have Integrity

Some of you are going to think this isn’t a skill.  I disagree.  Although it’s true that integrity is more of a character trait, that doesn’t mean that it’s  something you can’t deliberately focus on.

Integrity is about being truthful and trustworthy.  It is to have frankness and candour.  It means that people know you are authentic.

Here are some habits you might want to think about to develop integrity:

  • Absolute truth.  Don’t get people to tell clients you’re in a meeting if you’re not.  Don’t say you’ve done something if you haven’t.  Don’t say it’s somebody else’s fault if it’s yours.  Too many lawyers are comfortable with “white lies” and it is a problem.  It might seem harmless, but it’s not.  Habitual white lies make you comfortable with deception, which in the long run is going to be a big problem.
  • Do what you said, when you say you’re going to (or faster).  Do it properly. Under-promise and over-deliver.
  • Mistakes must be disclosed.  Tell whoever you need to, address the issue, and get on with it.  Hiding problems will make things worse, and will cost you valuable sleep.

Be Persuasive

A good part of a lawyer’s job is to persuade.  The other side, your boss, your client – it doesn’t really matter.  To do this you’ve got to understand who you’re talking to and what they need to know in order to come to your view.  Once you can understand the recipient, half the job is done.

The next half of persuasion is articulation.  You need to be able to send an effective message.  Be succinct.  Use clear language.  Say only what you need to say, and nothing more.

Lawyers Must Think Like Entrepreneurs

As lawyers we are trained to avoid risk, to analyse minutiae, to dissect and criticize.  That training can be helpful when it comes to some aspects of practice, but not all.

A point will come when you want to build a business.  You want to get clients, retain them, and offer them a reason to stick with you.  That’s where the entrepreneur comes in.

Entrepreneurs take calculated risks.  They look for opportunities, not just problems.  They act outside their comfort zone.  Entrepreneurs build businesses, pick themselves up from failure, and get back out there.  As a lawyer, you need to be comfortable with this aspect, and not get stuck in the negativity of risk analysis all the time.

Finally – if you act for business, a bit of thinking like a business person can help  understand more about what motivates them, so we’re not ignorant of commercial imperatives.

Relationships Are Essential

We can’t practice law without the ability to build relationships.  People will be all around us, all the time.  Can you develop rapport quickly and effectively?  Do you inspire confidence?  Can you lead a team, and keep talented staff?  Are you getting the best out of people, or not?  Can you manage your superiors as well as your subordinates?  Can you work effectively within a team, even if you don’t like some of them?  If you can’t, you need to start figuring out why, and put some strategies in place to work on that issue.

Don’t forget your personal life.  It has a profound impact on your ability to practice law.  If you are sacrificing personal relationships, then it’s a miscalculation.  Many studies have shown that people with effective personal relationships spring back from problems faster and better.  They are ultimately more successful in their careers and happier than the lone wolf.

So be relational.  You are not an island, and if you think you are then you’re going to learn otherwise some time soon.

Lawyers are Organised

Get your shop in order.

You cannot practise law well if you are in a constant state of disarray.  This doesn’t mean your office needs to be constantly minimalistic (I know good lawyers with atrocious offices), but it is more a state of mind.  Have focus and clarity about what you need to accomplish.

That said, there is a practical side.  Generally speaking organisation relies on effective systems to help you do your job.  Have a diary, a call sheet, a time sheet or whatever.  Implement the systems you need to ensure you are diligently and pro-actively serving your clients rather than swinging wildly from one urgent thing to the next.  Organisation ensures that you are dealing with the important, and not just the urgent.  It also protects you from bad mistakes.

Stay in control.  Stay organised.

Got any more?

Those are my 5 essential skills for lawyers.  What do you think – any that should have been there that aren’t?  Any that you totally disagree with?

Happy lawyering!



  • I think skepticism is an undervalued trait for lawyers. The number of times even senior lawyers don’t test what a client is saying shocks me. They just believe what they are told.

    The other one is preparation. You can’t be skeptical (or probe a story) if you haven’t read the brief.

    • Hi Brent and thanks for your comment!

      Skepticism is an interesting one – on the one hand, it goes against my general philosophy of “overwhelming positivity” but on the other I can see how testing things told to you will make you more thorough in your preparation for any task. As you say, if you don’t test what is told to you by your client, things can go wrong pretty quickly when deficiencies are pointed out by others…

      As you have said – preparation is a very important skill for lawyers that should be applied across the board!

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