The importance of soft skills to an innovative lawyer's toolkit

By Doron
April 2021

(this article first appeared in the March 2021 issue of The Legal Technologist)

As pitch teams of lawyers found themselves stranded in the virtual Himalayas, vying for a place on EasyJet’s refreshed legal panel at the end of last year, it was their soft skills that EasyJet sought to shine the spotlight on, rather than their technical knowledge or ubiquitous pitch scenario buzz-differentiator, ‘innovative streak’.

Creating common ground with their would-be advisors was the guiding principle for EasyJet when approaching this recent panel review process, where legal teams underwent an assessment a lawyer pitching for new instructions doesn’t usually prepare for.

The teams faced simulated situations involving extreme conditions (including a potential avalanche!), as EasyJet evaluated how their social and communication skills supported them in navigating down the mountain and back to virtual safety, evidenced by their responses to various multiple-choice challenges.

Different differentiators

EasyJet’s process is further corroboration for what– thankfully – many lawyers are already realising, which is that, as far as clients are concerned, the typical uniqueness signifiers that firms seek to rely on, in order to set themselves apart from others (e.g. global reach, number of offices, “putting clients first” and claims of innovation and commerciality), are no longer enough on their own.

Showing emotional intelligence, instilling trust and demonstrating a real understanding of clients’ needs has to be given as much weight as technical strength or the ability to disrupt the status-quo with innovation (the latter becoming a prominent element in the pitch parlance zeitgeist).

The law has increasingly been likened to a collection of algorithms. This has, in turn, led to a regular discussion as to whether artificial intelligence could someday put legal practitioners out of business.

The obvious argument against the suggestion that A.I. is going to do away with lawyers is that an algorithm, however clever, cannot substitute a trusted advisor. There is nevertheless a risk that, in our time-poor work environments, lawyers focus on the task at hand while the soft skills that act as the scaffold for the client-advisor relationship and prop up its longevity are neglected.

A shift in expectations

In general, clients already expect that the external support from their private practice advisors should incorporate innovative tools and cutting-edge technologies, to help in future-proofing their businesses and enhance efficiencies. Increasingly, however, lawyers and, in particular, legal technologists are asked by in-house counsel, on whom pressure exists to demonstrate innovation, for support with brainstorms, think tanks and design jams, so that they can explore how they could be doing things differently.

Here the lawyer’s instinct may be to go straight to advice-giving and solution-finding rather than staying a little longer in the exploratory phase. Yes, this could get you a high score on the proactivity scale and, on the flipside, the “tell” approach that task-driven lawyers sometimes adopt may lead to assumptions taking precedence over taking the time to find out.

Asking open, expansive questions can really help in drilling down and establishing what clients actually need or what the wider circumstances informing a situation may be. In some instances, clients simply want assistance with finding the right tools to empower their teams to be doing things themselves. The “tell” approach is not necessarily conducive to that.

The O Shaped lawyer

As a former legal practitioner, myself, I’m taking the liberty of making the sweeping statement that lawyers often adopt a glass half-empty mindset, in the sense that we have to imagine the worst-case scenario for our clients and identify pressure-points and problems. In doing that, some of the important soft skills, such as asking the right questions, listening fully (to both what is said as well as what is not said) and showing empathy, can be neglected.

With EasyJet’s innovative panel review exercise, it was crucial for the company that legal advisors would work well as a team and show O Shaped lawyer characteristics, including open mindedness and an embracing of opportunity rather than mere focus on identifying risks. In an ever-changing legal tech market, for a lawyer seeking to build long-term relationships with clients, soft skills are key.

Innovation is not just about staying ahead of the technological curve. It’s about how we can keep delivering quality client service, growing and leading teams and developing future business. Putting relationships at the heart of innovation ensures those relationship remain vital and fruitful.

With expertise nowadays being assumed, if not altogether taken for granted, it’s what we can offer over and above it that matters.