Our choice of career is an important decision which we are often asked to make before having sufficient opportunity to reach an informed opinion about the type of job that would suit our skills.
To help decide if a career in law is for you, I have picked out five critical skills which, based on my experience as a lawyer, are needed for the job.
Take the following sentence:
“John will pay Sarah £100 on Monday or Tuesday of each week.”
And now, take this sentence:
“John will pay Sarah £100 on Monday and Tuesday of each week.”
What is the difference?
One word – “and” – which changes the whole meaning of the sentence. If this sentence was in a legal contract then the different conjunction used in each sentence (i.e. “or” or “and”) is the difference between John promising to pay Sarah £100 or £200 each week so it is essential that the correct one is used.
A key component of the job is to ensure that written documents, such as contracts and wills, accurately record people’s intentions. Terms can be complex and good lawyers possess an excellent eye for detail so that misunderstandings or even disputes are avoided.
In the above first sentence “John will pay Sarah £100 on Monday or Tuesday of each week” there is potential for a dispute over whether £100 is paid to Sarah on Monday or Tuesday of each week. Is it up to John to choose which day to pay Sarah? Or can Sarah demand £100 on Monday each week if she wishes? If there is a dispute, can a third party adjudicate and are John and Sarah bound by this decision?
It is these types of questions that lawyers need to ask. A lawyer is likely to advise that the sentence is amended, perhaps to read “John will pay Sarah £100 on Monday or Tuesday of each week, such day to be chosen by John in his absolute discretion.”
Grammatical and linguistic precision matters in the legal industry because the consequences of imprecision can be very significant. For a real life example of the potential implications, it is worth reading the 2017 American case of O’Connor v Oakhurst Dairy where the absence of a comma resulted in Oakhurst Dairy paying out $5m!
Questions to Ask Yourself:
- Do you have attention to detail?
- Do you have good command of grammar and vocabulary?
2. Common Sense
The core of the job is to provide sensible advice tailored to your client’s individual circumstances. No client is the same and most lawyers take an interest in their clients’ individual circumstances so that their legal advice can be aligned with their client’s interests.
As a lawyer, your job is to find solutions that actually work for your client. Where more than one party is involved, it is important to understand that the purpose is not to ‘win’ at any cost but to find a pragmatic and common sense solution which is acceptable to all parties. For example, if you are negotiating a divorce settlement, your client may be very clear that they wish to keep the dog. However, if you know that your client works abroad for six months of the year then is this the most sensible form of settlement?
The ability to offer creative solutions adapted to the needs of your client is what sets the best lawyers apart and can only be achieved with a thorough knowledge of your client’s situation and circumstances combined with commercial awareness. It is no surprise therefore that an aptitude for such commercial awareness is prized by law firms in their recruitment of trainee lawyers.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
- Can you see arguments from other people’s perspectives?
- Can you think creatively about how to resolve a problem?
3. Communication Skills
Legal language can be complex and difficult to understand and, in addition to understanding this language, a lawyer needs to be able to explain what it means in logical and precise terms. Good lawyers can communicate complex ideas in simple language in writing and in person.
For example, imagine that you are asked by a client whether there are any tax benefits to leaving some of their money to charity when they die.
Your research may reveal that, within the UK, if you leave at least 10 per cent of your taxable estate to a registered charity in your will then the rate of Inheritance Tax on the remainder of your estate can be reduced from 40 per cent to 36 per cent.
While it may be quick to copy and paste this sentence into an email to your client, will they actually understand this? The sentence contains several phrases that may not be understood by a non lawyer such as “taxable estate”, “registered charity” and “rate of Inheritance Tax”. Instead, the next step is likely to involve asking targeted questions such as ‘Do you know the total value of the assets that you own and, if so, what are they?’ and ‘Have you selected a charity and, if so, which charity?’ so that you can reformulate the information in language that is easily understood and actually useful to your client.
In contentious areas of law, strong communication skills are needed to be able to explain how your client’s argument fits within the framework of the law. For example, your client’s defence to an allegation of theft may simply be “I picked up the phone because I thought that it was my phone”. As their lawyer, it is critical that you are able to translate this argument into the right language to explain why this means that the elements required for a successful prosecution of theft are not satisfied and your client is therefore not guilty of the alleged crime.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
- Are you able to communicate complex ideas in simple language?
- Can you extract the salient points from a large quantity of information?
4. Ability to work well with others
Despite some people’s perceptions, working as a lawyer in most areas of practice involves regular communication and interaction with other people. Although there are many different types of lawyer, all are tasked with project management of some description so an ability to work well with people from different walks of life and from different nationalities and cultures is essential.
If a client asks you to sell their home, there are all sorts of people you may need to talk to in order to ensure this runs smoothly including the landlord, the surveyor, the estate agent, the buyer’s solicitor as well as a number of your own colleagues. It is therefore crucial that you are at ease interacting with people from diverse backgrounds and, in the event that something goes wrong, are able to control any frustrations that you may have with anyone involved in the transaction. Being able to control your emotions and having a healthy working relationship with those around you always leads to a better result for your client; it is never in your client’s interest for you to become angry or irritated with people that you are working with.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
- Do you enjoy working with other people?
- Are you able to control your emotions?
Patience is perhaps the most underrated skill that is needed in the job of a lawyer. Things do not always go to plan and you need to be able to keep calm and hold your nerve in difficult and frustrating circumstances.
Perhaps the urgent deal you are working on is delayed because of an IT error? Or perhaps your client has just revealed something in court which they did not reveal to you in advance which alters the case or that you may need to disclose to the judge?
The job of a lawyer is specifically not to be emotional in these circumstances. You may have very limited time to find solutions to problems so having a level headed temperament to deal with crisis situations calmly and resourcefully is a critical part of the job.
Question to Ask Yourself:
- Do you remain calm under pressure?
Are you considering a career as a lawyer? If so, you should take steps to ensure your decision is as informed as possible, ideally by speaking to people in the profession and undertaking work experience so that you can test whether the day-to-day reality of the job matches your skill set.
There are many different types of lawyer so it is important to research the options carefully and consider what you want from your career. Would you enjoy working in an office? Would you like to present arguments in court? Do you enjoy writing reports on a project’s legal risks? Careful consideration of the issues set out in this article at an early stage will set you apart from other candidates and hopefully lead to a very rewarding and fulfilling career!
Matt Cowen is a Solicitor at Winckworth Sherwood