Lawyers have a reputation for focussing less on what is said and more on what is written but a university is to start helping trainee lawyers to master the art of small talk so they are better prepared for the world of work.
With findings* that show nearly half (44%) of 18 to 24-year-olds are more comfortable using digital devices to talk to people they don’t know than speaking face-to-face, BPP University Law School – which prides itself on creating graduates who are career ready – has called in a specialist conversation trainer to help. Georgie Nightingall will design and run a course for students which teaches practical conversation tools to help navigate business small talk and accelerate relationship building.
“Small talk is a soft skill that can be worked on and improved with practice. It is often seen as a challenge or a bit of waste of time, but it shouldn’t be because it’s an important way to create trust, connect with people and build relationships,” said Ms Nightingall.
The initiative, the first of its kind within the world of higher education, is being introduced after research from the University showed that a third (30%) of future lawyers don’t feel comfortable talking in front of a group. Two-fifths (43%) of prospective lawyers also worry that they will be judged by the way they speak.
With Covid-19 having a profound impact on office life, the university will also offer online modules on ‘how to talk confidently in an unfamiliar setting’ and ‘how to have a difficult conversation’ through the university’s virtual learning environment (VLE), the purpose-built gateway BPP uses to deliver learning materials and assessments to students.
Ravi Nayer, a barrister and partner at Brown Rudnick and a champion of diversity within the industry, will also launch a speaker programme to help students present themselves with greater confidence in the workplace, especially around those with backgrounds different to their own.
And the University will work with Aspiring Solicitors – an organisation focused on increasing diversity in the legal profession – to create a series of opportunities to build the confidence of student lawyers, and develop their understanding of law firms and their culture.“The new courses are part of a series of initiatives that will focus on an important – but often overlooked – executive skill,” said Jonny Hurst, head of outreach and student recruitment at BPP University.
“Law is a business of relationships and junior lawyers are expected to start working in a legal environment able to chat easily with strangers before a meeting begins properly, or to ‘work a room’ at firm events. The ability to have good conversations with colleagues and clients marks out the future partners. In most cases, no one has taught them how to do it.
“Small talk will never be the most important part of a meeting, but it opens the door to conversations which travel across different subjects and allows relationships to build and flourish. There is more to law than the transaction, case or advice you impart. Landing a job and working well with clients once you are in a job require good small talk skills.”
The research also highlighted the main worries that students have about going to networking events are being asked a question that they don’t know how to answer (32%), freezing up and not being able to find the right words (20%), talking too quickly (11%), and being too modest about their own achievements (10%).
As a champion of diversity within the legal world and beyond Mr Nayer, an alumnus of BPP, is keen to urge trainee lawyers to “never shy away from what makes you who you are”.
He added that “even the most outgoing of people can struggle when it comes to making professional conversation. But having the confidence to find an authentic way to connect with people will help to build relationships. We want to help students to have the confidence to make an impact and to build their own networks.
“Law firms have made huge efforts to diversify their workforce and improve workplace mobility. But to really drive inclusion, the sector needs to help build this skill so that talented people are equipped to progress, make the impact their talent deserves and truly realise their potential.”
Many law students are yet to be convinced that the sector is as inclusive as it thinks it is. The research by the University showed four in five (86%) think candidates from less privileged backgrounds still have a hard time fitting in at both law firms and barrister’s Chambers.
A separate study among HR managers** showed that just 13 per cent thought UK graduates were ready “to hit the ground running” after university. The research found 69% felt graduates were only ‘somewhat’ ready for the workplace. Almost half (48%) of those polled by Pearson Business School said graduates lacked leadership skills, while a similar number identified skills gaps in negotiation (44 %) and strategy and planning (38%).
*Source: YouGov study of 2,163 adults, 2018.
BPP University Law School research was carried out online during January 2021 among a sample of 369 students currently studying for a professional legal qualification – Law Conversion Course (PGDL), or Legal Practice Course (LPC), or Barrister Training Course (BTC).
**Source: Survation study of 531 HR managers, 2019.