I am often asked why one particular job candidate was selected by an employer over another when both had apparently similar technical skills and experience. When asked on their final choice an employer will very often simply say that they “liked” one candidate better or that “they seemed to be a good fit” for the firm. However, the reason for their choice is nearly always the same and is related to the fact that the interviewing Partners will be sub-consciously looking for a set of skills that they themselves have mastered over the years. Beyond the purely technical, each employer will be searching for an applicant who can demonstrate this additional set of skills.
Whether you are a graduate looking to land your first job, or a seasoned Associate seeking to improve your earnings, there is one set of skills you need to master. They are commonly referred to as the “soft skills”.
First, let’s start with the name. The skills we usually call “soft” are essential, not optional. These skills are not “soft” but actually HARD to learn and apply. Unlike technical skills, soft skills are less knowledge based and are largely honed through practical experience. You will need to learn them sooner in your career rather than later, as they will often be the biggest differentiator between successful and non-successful lawyers.
Soft skills can include simple things like knowing how to start a conversation and not being offensive by butting in or interrupting. They include getting to know a bit about the client or colleague beforehand – their role, family, sports or hobbies. During conversations you will need to have the ability to show compassion and empathy – not simply dismissing others concerns. You need to be generous with your understanding of a client’s problems, listen well and demonstrate your ability to put a client, who may be feeling stressed or uncomfortable, at ease.
When interacting with colleagues and clients you need to balance the amount of “me” time in the conversation by listening a lot and asking questions. You need to know how to deliver authentic compliments and keep conversations positive. In short, you need to improve your “likeability factor”.
Understanding the value of soft skills for your career is important, but ultimately pointless if you don’t take the steps to develop them. Unlike technical skills, soft skills are less knowledge based and are mostly gained through practical experience. In some firms it will be the role of Partners to ensure that more junior staff develop these skills, but there is an additional educational factor to improvement.
Take the time to identify forms of practical training (which may be outside of regular training offered) that will help you improve your soft skills and “likeability factor”.