What skills are required to become a lawyer?
Increasingly, law firms and chambers recruit applicants who have a portfolio of specific skills to equip them to succeed in legal practice. When talking to the graduate recruitment managers of leading law firms about what they look for in desirable candidates, there are qualities that come up time and time again. Law firms spend a phenomenal amount of time and money in searching for the most talented students; developing their trainees to become talented lawyers and future partners of the firm. This is why they have spent a great deal of time considering what attributes make the "brightest talent", and invariably seek to recruit only the very best and most able people. Law firms / chambers do not expect you to be the finished article, but are looking for "projected ability" and real potential. It would be naive to assume that every employer is looking for precisely the same attributes, but aspiring lawyers must be able to demonstrate certain discernible skills both to succeed as a solicitor / barrister and to operate effectively in the competitive professional and business world. These skills include:
*A stellar academic record: Law firms seek to recruit students who have achieved excellent academic grades consistently throughout their education. The work of a lawyer is intellectually rigorous, demanding and you must be able to show that you have the intelligence and ability to absorb, assimilate and analyse complex material very quickly. Recruiters will base your ability to cope with such demands, on the marks you have achieved at school and university; as they view your academic grades as one of the key indicators of intellect and a benchmark of your capability, which is why the reputable commercial law firms request the very best qualifications.
The minimum entrance requirement for securing a training contract at the leading commercial firms are typically a 2:1 degree, often accompanied by a further request of three A grades at A-level to further refine the academic criteria of their recruitment process. That's not to say that it is impossible to get a training contract with a 2:2, just that you either (i) have to be able to show that are capable of better, but due to mitigating factors (for example, illness or bereavement) you were unable to achieve your full potential, or (ii) have to do further research to find those firms for whom the 2:1 isn't a pre-requisite for employment.
However, law firms have become aware that strong academics alone will not make a successful lawyer and thus look for other skills. For example, achievement in sport, commercial experience, interesting hobbies, and language skills can provide you with a strong competitive edge in the legal recruitment market.
Our Top Tip: Balance your academic studies with extra-curricular activities from other areas of your life, to illustrate you are a well-rounded person with lots to offer. This will almost certainly impress recruiters.
*Teamwork: One of the most important skills you'll need to be a successful solicitor is the ability to be a useful member of a team. When applying, ensure that you highlight examples that show you're are a good team player and leader during university and your past work experiences. At law firms you will need to be a good team player because teamwork is a very important to get-on in your legal career.
Teamwork consists of working with others to form a consensus and reach the best possible outcome for all parties, whether in transactions, mediations or arbitrations. Negotiations are based around working with teams which often not only includes working with your colleagues in your department, but those from other groups to form multi-disciplinary teams, which also has input by the client and other professionals. The ability to work collaboratively and effectively with others is of fundamental importance to working successfully at a law firm.
*Interpersonal skills - Any lawyer must be able to communicate effectively with their client. Your ability to relate and interact with others in such a way as to engender confidence, form lasting relationships, and clearly explain complex situations in a clear manner is integral to the role of a solicitor. In addition, having good "people skills" will help you to interact with a wide variety of characters at your firm and fit into the culture of the firm.
At times, you will need to tap into the know-how of different people in order to get-on. For example, the librarians and secretaries play such a pivotal role in the daily function of a law firm. If you build up a good rapport with your secretary, your work may be placed on the top of the pile and your work turnaround quickly, which will impress your supervisor.
The most successful lawyers tend to be personable and able to work effectively with people by cultivating, building, developing and maintaining relationships with clients and colleagues alike. As you progress through your career, your firm will expect you to build up a list of contacts and eventually win new business. Marketing opportunities are very important and you need to be able to show clients that as well as being a solid legal technician, you are also "good value" in a social context.
*Communication - Being able to communicate clearly and effectively on paper or face-to-face or over the telephone underpins the role of a solicitor. This is because the role of a solicitor largely involves being able to advise and negotiate effectively with their client and the other side to ensure a deal runs smoothly. The use of clear and succinct language will be valued by both your clients and colleagues. Client care is fundamental and possessing excellent communication skills will help you to communicate ideas and advice to your clients.
*Commercial acumen - Based on talking to recruiters up and down the country this is the single most desirable attribute employers look for in a future trainee, and is becoming more and more important for modern day legal practice. Trainee solicitors are expected to emerge not only as good lawyers, but as sound business advisors as well. Commercial awareness, simply put, is developing an understanding of the business environment in which law firms and their clients operate. Aspiring lawyers must be able to appreciate the role of a commercial lawyer and the commercial context in which they provide the legal advice.
The best way to demonstrate that you have what it takes to cut it as a commercial lawyer is to demonstrate your ability to think commercially, and from a client's perspective as early as possible. As a commercial lawyer you need to understand your clients' businesses in order to give them the best legal advice. Recruiters will look for candidates who have a keen understanding of the business world.
A commercial client will not care about the technical meaning of legal terminology, but she will be deeply interested in the impact that it may have on the transaction at hand. For City firms especially, legal advice always takes on a business element and every student needs to be commercially aware, so that you will be able to contextualise legal advice to the client. For more information - go to Demystifying commercial awareness.
* Commitment and dedication to a legal career - With intense competition for places, it is vital students can demonstrate a long-term commitment to a career in law, which can be shown through work experience. It is important that you acquire work experience in both a legal and commercial environment to evidence your interest, enthusiasm and motivation for pursuing a legal career.
*Attention to detail - When lawyers draft contracts, a single word in the wrong place can change the emphasis of a clause and possibly the outcome for your client. A lawyer is expected to have a thorough, accurate and meticulous approach to their work. Committing any glaring grammatical or punctuation mistakes on your application form is the easiest way to fast track your application to the rejection pile.
*Honesty and integrity - Clients expect lawyers to work to a high moral standard, total professional integrity and ethical code, because they will only instruct solicitors they trust. Solicitors' professional conduct rules are strict guidelines ensuring lawyers always act in their clients' best interests; client confidentiality and professionalism are paramount to safeguarding the reputation and standards of the legal profession.
* Pro-activity - Firms like applicants who display initiative and a get up and go. They are also impressed by candidates who value their skills and strengths. This can be demonstrated by the way in which you apply to the firm. For example, aspiring lawyers rarely seem to ask law firms for unpaid work experience; shadowing a solicitor is a really good way of gaining an insight into legal practice, and follows the proviso that, once you impress the solicitor and other professionals at the firm - they will offer you a job.
* Ambition - Many aspiring lawyers are extremely ambitious, determined and driven. In such a competitive business, you should have a clear and realistic plan of where you imagine your career heading in the next five to ten years, and whether it is your aspiration to become a partner at a law firm, or a senior counsel in-house at a global blue-chip company.
*Image is vital - Project a professional and businesslike personal brand. Your attitude and source of motivation for becoming a lawyer is really important; before a firm commits to employing you, they will want to be sure that their clients will see you in a positive way. First impressions always count for so much. Even when completing your application forms, so take your time over your applications and carefully consider the image you are conveying.
* Enthusiasm and Energy - Demonstrate a real interest for the firm you are applying to, and the type of work they do. Your passion will enable you to talk about the firm and the reasons for your application in a vibrant way. You will naturally come across as highly-motivated applicant that will fit in and do well at the firm.
* Individuality - Always be yourself and do not try to be someone that you think firms are looking for. Firms don't want order-following clones on the career treadmill! They want to see a variety of individual personalities with sparky characters. At interviews, always give answers that are personal and unique to you, rather than the answer you think interviewers want to hear.
* Sense of humour - Allow your personality to shine through at interview. Firms want individuals who are not afraid to be themselves, express their opinions and who know what they want out of their legal career. Throughout your legal career you will have to socialise constantly and your ability to talk to people is important to your employability prospects. During the course of your training contract, you may end up working into the early hours of the morning on a large transaction. Any associate will appreciate working with someone whose personality helps to keep spirits high and boost the morale of the team.
*Extra-curricular activities - Your interests and hobbies can be an incredible selling point, as this is your opportunity to showcase your personality. How else will you show that you have developed into a well-rounded individual? Law firms aim to recruit a variety of personalities and the way you spend your free-time adds value to your credentials to show how you manage your time, your leadership qualities and that you are an interesting and fun person to work with. Use whatever you say to reinforce to the recruiter that you have all the qualities they are looking for.
*Legal/commercial work experience can be the decisive factor at interviews. Lots of savvy candidates will use this kind of experience to integrate their commercial awareness and transferable skills into their CV/applications. Eye-catching experience or interests can make a significant difference to being selected for interview. If you do not yet have any work experience it is necessary that you do your best to find some. If you are interested in a particular area, there is no better way of expressing your interest than having gained solid experience in this area of the law. Gaining an insight into the realities of working life also shows you appreciate how academia translates into the day-to-day practicalities of working as a lawyer; because there is a huge difference between studying and practicing law as the two require completely different sets of skills. Any vacation placements will be an advantage, and if marketed effectively could give you an edge over other applicants with similar academic grades.
Our Top Tip: Devising a skills table is a particularly useful technique to highlight your skills against a firm's criteria, which will help you prepare your application forms and interviews. List a number of skills (such as legal experience, problem solving, commercial awareness etc) and then think of examples of how you have used/developed these skills. Try to find examples from each of your education, work experience and extra-curricular activities. Aim to use as many different examples as you can in order to reflect your varied experience and well-rounded personality. The aim is to show that you have a wide range of experiences. By doing this you will be able to answer most of the skills-based questions on an application form, as well as those that interviewers throw at you. Below is an example of a skills table with examples of different experiences:
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