Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The "Required" Skills of Lawyers

Hard skills, soft skills, lite skills, skill gaps and skill bridges, and so on.  There is growing talk in the legal markets over just what set of skills a successful lawyer is to have.  Setting aside labels for the moment I have outlined below the skills that appear to be most relevant and important for any lawyer – in-house or at a firm – junior or senior.   It is important to note that I craft and explain these skills not based so much on my own opinion (though I do agree obviously) but on the words of lawyers and clients themselves.  Or in some cases based on my direct observations when working with clients and witnessing the interaction/intersection of Law and Business.   I will insert my opinion to say that too often the lack of these skills in the legal market is quite simply tolerated – so much so that most folks do not even think about them.  One could say that this is evidence that they are unimportant – as if to say if it does not have a lawyer’s attention it must not matter (and a lawyer actually did proclaim this to me). 

Commerciality or Business Acumen:
Layers are geared and hard-wired to approach problems from a legal standpoint first and foremost.  Often we tend to have a laser-like vision on detecting and identifying all possible pitfalls and risks associated with a certain event or deal.  This is all fine and indeed what the typical role of lawyer has been.  But what if we saw the bigger picture?  The forest from the trees?  What if we not only had a deep understanding of the legal landscape but also had a deep understanding of the business of our client and the markets in which our client operates within? Having this potent combination of perspective and intelligence could arm a lawyer with the ability to offer value to the greater business interests of the client not just the legal.  This allows the legal function to move closer to the overall business function therefore becoming more aligned with the overall decision making of the client.  More importantly this allows a lawyer to move from typical to unique- a differentiator, a valuable resource.

Accountability and Ownership:
Too many times in counseling clients we hide behind the built in uncertainty of the legal process.  Instilling confusion, uncertainty or even fright in the minds of our clients by pointing out that a jury could decide anything or the judge can be erratic or the mediator’s job is to make sure both parties walk away unhappy.  Surely there is inherit risk within our legal and regulatory system but that should not excuse a lawyer from pronouncing their advice with a sense of confidence and ownership.  We need to make decisions for our clients not just present the options and say, ”choose wisely.”  When we make these decisions we also need to stand behind them and take the good with the bad not just take the good and blame someone else or the system for the bad.  Lawyers too often want to be the hero but not the loser – who does?  But our clients pay for our advice and so when it does not turn out well we need to own up to it. Ideally in these cases we would also follow up with the client and review the process and events to help craft a better approach in future matters.

Option Orientated versus Risk Orientated:
We are trained and educated begin day one in law school to identify risks.  What we are not provided in our education and later in practice is instruction on how to acknowledge these risks while also pursuing a specific plan or goal.  Too often lawyers say, “you cannot do this” or “you should not do that” even when it is not in regards to criminality or legal liability.   The client may want to pursue a new direction or allow a group to embark on a new project that carries with it some risks of failure and potential liability for the client.   A lawyer rightfully needs to point out all possible risks and negative implications.  However, the lawyer needs to recognize that if this is a business goal of the client then they ought to work to find the best potential plan that achieves the goal while controlling for the most risk.  A lawyer can then say something akin to “you can do this and here is how and what we need to be careful with and watch for.”

Resourcefulness (the 80/100 Rule)
:
Knowing when to turn over every single pebble and knowing when to focus on boulders is more art than science - and less obvious than this metaphor depicts.  Yet most lawyers approach almost every client issues looking for every pebble and begin looking for why this case/issue is different than any others.  We are so strong at reading content and then arguing for or against the principles within it that we have lost the ability and sometimes willingness to first see similarities in the overall matter.  Without going into the billing paradox embedded as part of this sentiment – we do not and should not look to reinvent the wheel with each new issue that our client presents us.  Rather successful lawyers are excellent at leveraging prior knowledge and work to their and their client’s advantage.  Sometimes bringing an answer to the client quickly but only being 80% confident is extremely more valuable than bringing an answer feeling 100% confident much later.  Business moves swiftly at times and a lawyers needs to understand that they ought to be operating at the clients pace not their own.  Plus generally the time it takes to get from 80% to 100% compared to the value it brings tends to flatten and stagnate.  Put another way –many times an 80% solution that is ready now is better than a 100% solution that is ready later.

Consistent Diligence:

Lawyers need to strengthen as best they can to ensure our advice is based not just on diligent analysis of all the relevant facts and concerns, applying the relevant laws, regulations and/or policies.  We need to do this while taking into account the business context in which events occurred and the solution is now being applied in.  In doing so we need to ensure that we capture and are able to explain how we arrived at the advice we have.  This helps in building trust with the client as they may ask for further explanation or question our level of confidence in our counsel.  It is during these times that we must be able to honestly demonstrate our command of the situation as a whole not just some part of it. 

The balancing act that lawyers need to perform is that of Resourcefulness with Consistent Diligence.  They are not polar opposites but rather two distinct efforts that can be individually calibrated per each situation. 

Back to the labels that started this article:  Labels may be useful to draw distinction in some contexts but I would rather call all of these skills simply “required skills.”