A Hard Case for Soft Skills

Jim was crestfallen and confused the first time I talked with him. He thought he had a lock on being made partner. His hours were well above target, and his expertise in his practice area was highly regarded. For several years, he had heard that he was an extremely valuable resource to his firm. But then year-end came, and no partnership offer.

He couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. His considerable accomplishments were acknowledged, yet it was felt that he didn’t quite have the “polish” he needed to become a partner. He had no idea what that meant, or what he was doing wrong. When he asked what he could do to improve his “polish,” he was told that he needed to work on his “soft skills” and working relationships.

Jim’s firm didn’t want to lose him. He was a productive and profitable associate. They offered to pay for his professional development coaching, and he was referred to me, a certified coach and former lawyer who specializes in leadership, talent, and career development. Jim reminded me of many of the attorneys I have coached: extremely smart; hardworking; task-focused; and achievement-oriented; but struggling with figuring out how to do a better job of working with other people.

Jim didn’t beat around the bush in our first meeting. Within a minute he abruptly asked, “So, Andrew, what does ‘polish’ mean, how do I get it, and what are these soft skills I’m supposed to work on?” I told him to think of his technical expertise and proficiency in matters of procedure and substantive law as his “hard skills.” No one at the firm doubted they were at an exceptionally high level. At the same time, his partners felt that hard skills alone weren’t sufficient to qualify him for partnership. I shared with Jim that I had been told that some of the firm’s clients and attorneys found it difficult and awkward at times to work with him. He wasn’t entirely surprised – he had received the same feedback – but the idea of working on something he thought was soft, fuzzy, or touchy-feely didn’t appeal to him.

I explained: “‘Soft skills’ is perhaps a poor term for what your partners want you to develop. There’s nothing soft about the results they bring, and in spite of the name, they can be hard to learn—though they are learnable. The term ‘soft skills’ actually started with the U.S. military (rarely thought of as a soft organization) in the 1960s, to distinguish skills used in operating machinery and equipment (hard) from those necessary for motivating, managing, and leading soldiers (soft).”

I continued, “There’s not a uniform definition of the term. Today, ‘soft skills’ is used to embrace a wide range of communications and social skills, as well as some personality and character traits. One list I’m familiar with includes 10 skills: communication, courtesy, flexibility, integrity, interpersonal skills, positive attitude, professionalism, responsibility, teamwork, and work ethic. That’s a bit of a long list for my tastes; in my opinion, soft skills at heart are about how we use our emotional and social intelligence to interact and work with other people. I like to think of it as ‘people smarts’ and ‘people skills.’ It’s how we listen, talk to, and treat other people. Soft skills help us build relationships, be better understood, better understand others, and get stuff done.”

Jim agreed that most legal work and tasks are relational, involving communication and interaction between people. He could see that even in adversarial situations, collaboration and coordination were needed, if not imperative. He was starting to understand, and asked whether effective advocacy also depended on soft skills. I explained that soft skills really are the foundation for our efforts at persuasion and negotiation, and even in appellate advocacy, successful arguments depend on emotions as well as logic.

Jim was almost sold, but being an evidence-oriented kind of guy, he was still skeptical. He asked how I knew soft skills worked and made a difference. I described how they had helped other lawyer coachees of mine, but I sensed he needed something more objective and authoritative.

I cited one rigorous academic study that found that 75% of long-term job success in business depends on people skills, while only 25% is dependent on technical knowledge; and another that indicated the 85% of success is due to soft skills, while hard skills contribute only 15%. Similar studies have the proportions at 80% soft skills and 20% hard skills.

I added that in a pivotal study on emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman found that beyond a certain point in people’s careers, there is little or no correlation between IQ and high levels of professional achievement. Cognitive intelligence does play a larger role in education and at the early stages of a career, but as a person’s career progresses to higher levels (often encompassing management and leadership), emotional intelligence plays a larger role, and becomes a more important differentiator. Goleman found that when people’s IQ and technical skills are about the same, their emotional intelligence accounts for almost 90% of what determines who will move up the ladder of success and how far.

Ever the skeptical lawyer, Jim asked whether this was also true in the legal profession. I referred him to research on predicting lawyer effectiveness conducted by Marjorie M. Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck. They found that several non-cognitive intelligence factors showed a stronger correlation with lawyer effectiveness than law school admission criteria, such as undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores. Their research revealed that personality traits, communication skills, interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, practical judgment, and creativity were all found to be valid predictors of career performance. In short, the most effective lawyers relied on more than their knowledge and raw intelligence.

Jim now realized that relying solely on his considerable technical expertise and proficiency wasn’t a good strategy for making partner. He asked if I knew of any books or articles he could read so that he could “learn this stuff and become a partner.” I replied that reading a book on soft skills wasn’t a bad idea, but reading alone wouldn’t help him develop them. It would be a lot like trying to learn to play golf or tennis solely by reading a book—he might end up more knowledgeable about the sport, but probably not more skillful. That, I explained, is why pro athletes have coaches, and that’s why his firm thought a coach would help.

Jim sighed. I was curious. “What’s behind that sigh?” I asked. Jim said that while he was a whiz at learning facts and taking tests, experiential learning wasn’t his thing. Leave him alone and let him read, think, and write, he was great; have him perform or interact with others, he floundered. He admitted that working with other students on a moot court project was a huge challenge, and the low point of law school for him. I empathized, adding that for many people developing soft skills is much more difficult than developing hard skills. Not only do we need to actively interact with others on an ongoing basis, but we also have to be willing to receive feedback. Rather than acquiring information from a book, the only sure path we have to developing soft skills is through coaching or training and sustained practice. Patience is needed.

I felt Jim needed some encouragement at this point. “Listen,” I said, “it’s not a failing that you’re not already competent in this area. This will probably be a new way of learning for you. As academically accomplished as we may be, very few law schools currently teach us any of these relationship-based skills. (They are however increasingly showing up in the curricula of business and medical schools.) It’s not as though schools can give us a quiz or exam that will quickly and definitively measure our interpersonal or leadership skills. The closest we come to that is the use of peer-review evaluations and 360-degree assessments in the business world.”

I told Jim that his firm was quite forward-thinking in wanting him to develop his soft skills. In the past, many firms considered management, business, or people skills to be well outside the purview of professional development. The old attitude was, “If it wasn’t worthy of study in law school, why should we bother with it now?”

His firm realized the accelerating pace of change in the legal profession has made mastery of these skills a necessity. Leadership skills are more important than ever, as law firms grow in size, number of practice areas and geographic scope. Working virtually and interculturally has become the norm for many lawyers. Larger and increasingly complex cases require higher degrees of collaboration within firms and between lawyers and vendors. And because of increased competition for clients, firms are redoubling their marketing efforts. Firms that develop their lawyers’ people skills gain a significant competitive advantage in those areas and also by boosting productivity and morale. And lawyers who develop their soft skills have a competitive advantage over those who don’t.

About the Author

Andrew Elowitt is a practice management consultant and professional certified coach. He is the co-author of Lawyers as Managers: How to Be a Champion for Your Firm and Employees (ABA 2017) and author of The Lawyer’s Guide to Professional Coaching: Leadership Mentoring and Effectiveness (ABA 2012). Contact him at elowitt@newactions.com

Send this to a friend