Written by Ramanuj Mukherjee with assistance from Aditya Swarup Singh, Maharashtra National Law University, Nagpur
The initial years of legal practice can be extremely challenging. Finding the right genre of practice area, establishing a strong clientele and most importantly being financially independent from the word ‘go’ is the dream, but does not come easy. The legal professionals always find these formative years the most challenging.
I am going to assume here that the lawyers we are talking about intend to cater to businesses and not individuals. This limitation of scope will help us to focus this article better. However, our scope will cover both transactional practice, colloquially and inaccurately referred to as corporate law practice, as well as litigation and dispute resolution practice.
There are certain basic statutes such as contract law, company law, evidence law, civil procedure law, constitutional law etc. which every budding lawyer needs to have a basic understanding about. Beyond this, most law students and young lawyers rarely succeed in imagining what other skills or knowledge they may require.
I am going to list out some skills and specialized knowledge you should aspire to acquire over here:
As a business lawyer you must have significant business acumen. Otherise, you are bound to be left behind. You need to understand what are the commercial interest driving a deal, what are the pitfalls of a business transaction maybe, what are the common sticking points, what are the common reasons for disputes arising, commercial experiences of all parties involved, the trajectory of the sector, market and the overall economy.Why a lawyer needs to be well read well informed and generally well-heeled.
Those who only know the statute and the case laws really make the cut beyond a point in legal career.
Legal practice management
It is not enough to know the law to practice law. Like every other business, practice of law is also a business with economic fundamentals, no matter how much lawyers protest saying that it is a noble profession.
It is very much governed by demand and supply and other laws of Economics. Therefore, it requires some management skills as well to prosper. However, most lawyers have very little management, business development or organisation building skills which are extremely necessary for the growth of their practice.
For the same reason, these skills are available at a premium in the legal industry. It is not possible for a random Business Development Manager or sales person from any other industry to come into the legal industry and do a great job at doing business development for law firms.
It is necessary to find homegrown talent. All lawyers who have a knack for business development and learn it on the go. This holds true for almost all areas of legal practice management. Bonus: check out this course on legal practice management I helped to create.
If you can develop various management skills like organisation, delegation, event management, client communication, public relations, networking, blogging etc. then you will find yourself much ahead of the rest as you begin your practice of law, whether in a law firm, a courtroom or as an in house legal counsel.
It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that lawyers get paid for knowing the law. In reality, lawyers get paid for being amazing communicators, although such communication takes place within the legal context. Whether in the courtroom, around the negotiation table, or in a boardroom – the lawyer’s greatest weapon is his or her communication skill.
Law students and young lawyers understand this intuitively, but most of them do not know how to develop good communication skills. The answer is that you must make the effort. Have you joined a Toastmasters chapter, or even read a single book on the subject?
The most important part of developing great communication skills is to work on your listening skills. Inexperienced lawyers think that communication is about talking or saying things or writing things. In reality it is about paying great attention to what is being said, not being said and being implied. Listening and understanding the context of an assertion or statement is far more important than trying to trump the other person with clever comebacks.
The basis of communication is trust, openness and interest. It also helps to be intentional and well prepared. Rehearsals go a long way. Whereas the veterans go in to the field after many rehearsals, the inexperienced think they do not need to prepare! Take time to prepare whatever you are going to communicate. That’s what gives your communication finesse.
Think of a stand up comedian. They test every small joke on hundreds of people in small venues and keep tweaking till they perfect it, and finally deliver the real thing in the biggest stages and TV shows that will be watched by millions of people. Months of preparation goes into delivering a 2 line joke.
How much do you prepare before you communicate? Hardwire your brain to prepare thoroughly for important communications, and leave nothing to chances.
Apart from preparation, if you can take interest in people, establish trust and be open to what they have to say or suggest, high quality communication can take place even on an impromptu basis.
Factual and legal analysis
Law schools talk a lot about teaching students to think like a lawyer. What they are basically talking about is the skill of analysis. If you are able to take in, comprehend and rearrange a large and complicated set of facts, and understand the relative implications of all of these facts in the context of a legal analysis, and even figure out what legal principles to apply, then you can do a legal analysis. The quality of the analysis and how much time you take to do it can vary a lot depending on your expertise and abilities. This skill is at the core of being a competent lawyer.
This same skill comes in handy when you are dealing with a new amendment or a judgement and have to figure out the implications of the same on your case or client.
Some people are amazingly persuasive while others are not. However, it is a skill that can be learned, cultivated and improved systematically. It is a very important skill that every lawyer needs to possess.
Whether you write or speak, you must do it to persuade, as opposed to just narrate or assert.
Persuasion requires a deep understanding of psychology of the target audience and customizing your message according to that. Persuasion often requires thinking on your feet because you constantly fine tune your message according to the response or live feedback you see, hear, feel and even perceive.
There are amazing books out there on the subject of persuasion as well as many courses. As long as you take this skill which is very important to every lawyer seriously and try to learn it, you will find ways to excel and become a very persuasive lawyer.
Leadership and management
Lawyers are natural leaders in many ways. However, management is something that lawyers are usually not so good with.
There are times when people need to be led and and at other times they must be managed.
Behind every successful lawyer there is always an amazing team. Every court clerk, steno, peon and of course, junior lawyer will be important component of your team. It is your job to put together that team and then make sure that it stays together and delivers results day after day.
This is no easy feat, nor will it happen very quickly. However, if you do not take leadership and management seriously, it will be very hard to reach the highest levels of your potential as a lawyer. Just like anything else these are also skills to be learnt.
Ability to work fast
The most successful lawyers have an ability to process a large volume of work. This is something that young lawyers often struggle with. You must have heard that successful lawyers work very long hours. This is no myth. However, what is less known is that these same lawyers are ruthlessly efficient. Law is a very competitive field and if you want to succeed you must learn to work fast despite maintaining high quality of work. Most ordinary professionals and people will find the pace of an accomplished lawyer almost impossible to keep up with.
Ability to recognize, adapt to and use technology
This is another very critical ability in these times. Technology is changing everything and even the profession of law is not immune to the changes that technology is causing. While it is still a fantasy that artificial intelligence will put lawyers out of job, lawyers who can identify important technological trends early, learn about new technology, implement them in their own practice or even focus on them as potential practice areas stand to benefit massively and become more competitive compared to all other lawyers.
Learning on the fly
Lawyers need to develop the ability to learn very quickly. They do not have the luxury to learn things slowly and at ease. They have to grapple with complex concepts and subjects and understand them very quickly and then apply that understanding to their client’s case. Sometimes they are required to change their practice areas at a very short notice and pick up new skills and knowledge in little time. This is the life of a lawyer.
There is no point in complaining. Especially, when this gives a huge advantage to those lawyers who can learn things fast. Learning is also a skill, try and learn it!
Law schools have since at least the 2000s sought to teach key skills that are the basis of practice like legal research, legal analysis, logical reasoning and written and oral communication. Law students have often taken it upon themselves through their societies and associations to hold competitions aimed at developing client interviewing, negotiation and advocacy skills.
Practical Legal Training (PLT) courses have incorporated legal interviewing, advocacy, negotiation, letter-writing, legal document drafting, file and matter management. The desire for practice skills reflects both employer requests and student expectations that their law degree will translate into employment. The education of new lawyers requires the incremental development of practice skills starting in law school, progressing through PLT and continuing into practice, followed by continuing legal education as their experience grows. Unfortunately, in most colleges these programs have proven to be ineffective.
How can you turbo charge your learning of all these skills?
How can you learn these skills without fail? It will take gradual systematic work. You will make mistakes and learns from your mistakes. You will probably need mentorship and guidance. We run 50 weeks long online law courses that focus on building these skills through 100 exercises. You learn through personal, customised feedback from our experts, followed by live online classes. These are serious and intensive courses, but they can totally change the trajectory of your career. Try out a course for a month, and if you don’t like, you get a 15 day window to claim a full refund. Here is our 100% refund policy. That’s how confident we are!