Developing the skills that a law firm looks for

Success at interview is one thing. Here we look at the skills you need to acquire in order to succeed at the law firm of your choice.

Law firms and careers professionals provide tips to applicants on how to get training contracts and vacation schemes, which requires a specific skill set. But is this missing the point? The question should be: can you do the job as well as write applications and get through interviews successfully? Do you want to buy into a law firm, become a part of their success? In other words is the firm’s success your success? Are you looking ahead to develop new skills and seek new opportunities?

Students missing deadlines or important pieces of information will often say “Nobody told me!” It’s tempting to reply “You’re fired!” Finding out what skills you need to develop is about researching the position for yourself. So where to start?

A Skills Checklist

What does a cursory glance at the texts available to LPC students and practitioners tell us? With reference to Skills for Lawyers 2010/11 (A. Elkington, J. Holtam, G. Shield and T. Simmonds – College of Law Publishing, 2010) five essential skills emerge that can transform your knowledge of law into something workable within law firms, namely: writing and drafting, legal research, interviewing and advising, negotiating and advocacy.

Let’s start with writing and drafting. How many times have you planned an assignment or written a letter and most importantly checked it for spelling and grammar? You will already have a foundation of skills that you can develop. Are you using Google and researching electronic and/or paper-based sources of information? Listening, questioning and communicating non-verbally are essential components of advising and interviewing. Successful negotiation or advocacy requires thorough preparation and a structured approach. Practise these skills, learning from success and failure, throughout your legal career (and outside, in non-legal contexts such as further study and leisure activities).

There’s a list of skills that you can acquire from readily available careers literature and websites. Generic skills apply to a range of professions, for example, organisational, problem-solving, team-working, leadership, taking responsibility, written and oral communication, working under pressure, tact and sensitivity. We provide a checklist at The University of Law (something similar will be available at all providers) which breaks these skill areas into sub-headings. This permits you to tailor your applications to what law firms look for generally – but the successful candidate will go further and deeper. By researching a particular law firm, you can identify their specific criteria to engineer a complementary list of your unique selling points.

Going the Extra Mile

Commercial awareness helps solicitors to build a rapport with clients; in this respect it’s essential to grasp the commercial context of the law. Showing you understand the market in which the client’s business operates will help to gain their confidence. However, different commercial considerations apply to different firms. A legal aid firm for example will need to know how to attract public funding and different types of client. But some skills are common: time management, demonstrating initiative and legal knowledge to name a few.

Interpersonal skills are paramount to successful marketing. Creating a good impression when meeting clients and providing a quality service will ensure the firm is recommended to others by existing clients. Never underestimate the power of ‘word of mouth’ as a marketing tool. Being able to ‘work the room’ by engaging clients who have been allocated to you to look after is also important.

Some LPC courses are tailored for large firms wanting a particular type of skill development, whilst others have their own in-house skills coaching and training. Careers professionals will signpost where you can research skills required in particular legal areas. For example, the skills required in private client work might be: empathy; impartiality; discretion; relating to clients; an eye for detail; a rigorous approach; and combining technical and social skills.

Developing Your Skills to the Full

Review your CV. Compare this to the job description and person specification (create your own if these are not provided). Which of your skills are sound and which do you need to develop?

It is important to be resourceful, to create opportunities through your network of friends, family and acquaintances. Any form of commercial setting is useful. Working in a bar or restaurant will help with client-facing skills whilst a front-of-house role in a legal advice centre adds value through learning about advisory work. Better still shadow a solicitor for a day or extend your network through court ushering and outdoor clerking. Use law fairs and open days to make crucial contacts and impress (remember to research first). Talking to trainees, paralegals, solicitors and other legal practitioners is vital. Treat a work experience or vacation scheme as an opportunity to strengthen your skills and to be noticed.

There are many benefits which pro bono students reap from such activities as drafting written advice and representation. Growing student confidence and skills awareness also emerge through employability workshops delivered at universities and colleges on topics such as interviewing, networking and negotiating.

The Citizens Advice Bureau is another source of training in areas such as interviewing and advising. Court work exposes students to different advocacy styles, and it is worth exploring what the Free Representation Unit has to offer as well as European Union traineeships.

Advice from Apprentice winner Stella English asserts that she “would like people generally to realise that you are in charge of your own destiny”. Lord Sugar summarises Stella’s success by saying “[You] went out of the way to train yourself and get yourself the job that you’ve got – and that shows me a lot of determination.”

Arjun Rajyagor, the 17-year-old 2010 Junior Apprentice Winner, has something useful to say about organisational conformity: “[It] depends entirely on the team…their passion towards the service…It is always important to work with people who share your vision and goal and that way, you can help each other to attain it.”

To sum up, research and re-research the type of law firm that is right for you. Through this process try to match the skills that are unique to you and unique to the firm within an ever-changing market, taking every opportunity available to use, adapt and develop them.

Visit our website for more information about our postgraduate law courses and our award-winning Careers and Employability Service.