The “Soft Skills” of the Successful Lawyer

“At the end of the day, we are, you know, mammals,” said Javier El-Hage at a recent “On Ramp to the Profession” program put on by the New Lawyer Institute of the New York City Bar Association. (Watch the program here.) 

El-Hage, the Chief Legal and Policy Officer at the Human Rights Foundation, was making the point that mammals, including humans, are known for being social animals, and that “soft skills” such as communication and relationship-building are as important to being a successful lawyer as the substantive knowledge and technical skills they teach in law school. “In law school, it’s important to develop that connectedness with your classmates, with your professors, with the people you meet at events like this; try to go that extra mile in establishing a personal connection, because that’s going to help down the line,” he said.

Communication and relationship-building are key to collaboration, a soft skill that Judge Elizabeth Stong emphasizes. “In our profession, nobody succeeds by themselves,” she said. “You’re not going to be as good as you can be if you aren’t engaged in other people, interested in other people, listening to other people, sharing your thoughts with other people….Collaborating just makes it that much more fun and that much more productive….So curiosity, collaboration, empathy, professionalism, no job too big, no job too small.”

Anthony Badaracco, Partner at Dorsey and Whitney, offers a specific collaboration tip, advising lawyers to share their plans with their colleagues in the early phases. “Have a quick conversation and see if this lines up with their expectations, or see if it creates any other ideas, and then build out piece by piece,” he said.  

Taking criticism and managing mistakes are soft skills every lawyer needs. A cardinal rule is not to delay in dealing with mistakes, because “if one waits too long out of embarrassment or fear to point them out, sometimes a mistake can become a larger issue and become a bigger problem than it needed it to be,” said Nancy Morisseau, Senior Counsel, National Grid, and Immediate Past President, Federal Bar Association SDNY Chapter. “And I’m always wanting to say, don’t just go to someone with a problem, always go to them with a solution as well.”

Tony Jaeger-Fine added that “feedback is not really criticism, it’s really an investment in your future,” and it means that someone has confidence in your ability to do the job with some sort of change in direction. She suggests trying to put a positive spin on things, recalling a terrible day she had at work. “And my positive spin was, I don’t have these days too often. And I should feel really good about that.”

A recurring theme among the panelists was happiness and the importance of well-being to avoid burnout. El-Hage mentioned the field of “positive psychology,” and Jennifer Wu shared that she’s a Buddhist, relating an episode in which her six-year-old daughter needed to get stitches. “And she doesn’t cry. She just literally just takes four stitches, everything’s fine. And I was like, what were you thinking about when you’re getting the stitches. And she said, ‘Oh, I was thinking about the waves in Hawaii, because that made me happy.’ And it was almost like she had discovered meditation on her own.”

Attention to mindfulness practices is growing significantly in the legal world, and support systems for issues of mental health have been growing as well. The City Bar’s Mindfulness & Well-Being in Law Committee and its Lawyer Assistance Program have many useful resources for mental health and well-being.

For more of the wisdom and tips imparted in “On Ramp to the Profession,” watch the full program here: