Austin Hall, Harvard Law School. By Daderot — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1987180

Lawyers: 8 Skills You Need To Enrich the World

As dean of Harvard Law School in the late 19th century, Christopher Columbus Langdell stopped lecturing students and instead had them read judicial decisions, which then became the subject of class discussions.

The case method, as it is known today, was not well-received by students.

Of course, there is a chance the students were more upset by his announcement that students would complete Harvard Law School’s degree course by taking examinations “of a thorough and searching character.” Over time, however, the Harvard students warmed to the case method and it became the standard approach to legal education.

Almost 150 years later, law schools still rely heavily on Langdell’s case method. But times have changed, despite the fondness many lawyers have for “the old ways.” The skills lawyers need go far beyond case analysis. Lawyers need to become everything from collaborative leaders to coding technologists.

Talk to lawyers about what they actually do, and most will describe fairly mundane things. If asked why they do not spend some time on more interesting issues, they point out the economics of a law practice. We have created a monster. Lawyers devote their energies to things that take time instead of things that take intellect. Time makes money. But this cycle stops them from focusing on issues that make a difference to clients and society.

At this moment, as we contemplate what too many lawyers really do, Woodrow Wilson’s thoughts from a 1913 address to Swarthmore College touch a nerve:

You are not here merely to prepare to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.

Law is a craft, but many lawyers started in law school thinking of themselves as doing more than earning one’s keep. There was the hope that by practicing law, they were attempting to enrich the world.

Gaining a New Perspective

I have always loved education, even though at times I have not been the ideal student. My career goal was to become an academic. Stuff happened, as they say, and I became a doer. I still wanted to get into the academic game and when the opportunity arose, I leapt at the chance.

I started teaching as an adjunct law professor at Michigan State University College of Law about a year ago. While it would be absurd (or typical lawyer arrogance, take your pick) to say I have become knowledgeable in the ways of legal education, I have learned some things about educating lawyers during my short time in academia.

First, most students today do not come to law school equipped with a proper foundation on which to build their legal skills or, in Wilson’s words, “live more amply, with greater vision.” Justice Elena Kagan, former Harvard Law School dean, and Judge Richard Posner, former University of Chicago Law School professor, seem to agree with me on this point. Critical thinking and communication skills are not the only skills a lawyer needs, but without them a lawyer will have difficulty doing much of anything in the law. We need to do much more to build those skills.

Second, significant gaps exist between what happens in law school and what happens in law practices. Those of us who have practiced law know they exist, but the gaps have gotten wider over the past 38 years. We need to close them.

Third, to many law students, practicing law is all about getting a job, not what they can do with the knowledge and skills they learn in law school. I understand the pressing need to get a job and I am not diminishing the importance of that step. But when searching for a job becomes the focal point of a student’s law school career, law school changes from a training ground for leaders to an expensive job placement agency.

If it is all about the first job, there are better and cheaper ways to get there. I do not blame the students — I question the process we have created that drives this result. We need to change that process.

Law professors, law students, and most lawyers draw a false sense of comfort from sticking to past formulas. The next decade and the decades after will not be like the decades leading up to today. Artificial intelligence and other technologies are forever re-shaping the world. The purpose of education today must be something more than landing that first job. It must be building a foundation that allows graduates to adapt, flex, continue learning, and thrive in a competitive environment no one has ever experienced.

Teaching Skills to Succeed

When you start teaching, you should question whether you are teaching what students need to learn. To enrich the world, they must have the necessary skills. In January, Stephanie Vozza published an article in Fast Company titled “Eight Career Skills You Need To Be Competitive In 2016.” As I looked through the skills and compared what Vozza identified to what I saw in other articles, I realized they all focused on the same things.

Using Vozza’s article as a starting point, we can look at skills lawyers need not just to compete for jobs, but to serve Wilson’s greater purpose. As you read through the soft skills she identifies, remember that they must come attached to excellence in hard skills. As Vozza says, “Sought-after people have a good mix of hard and soft skills, and those skills are always changing because today’s business climate is in constant flux.”

1. “The Ability To Manage A Diverse Environment”

“People from different generations in general have different views of the workplace, motivations, and communication preferences. Managers need to use different management and communications styles for each employee…” says workplace consultant Stan Kimer.

Law firms and the rare law department have up to four generations of lawyers working side by side. Age diversity is increasing, but diversity along other dimensions is decreasing. We do not teach lawyers leadership skills, and yet clients and societies need leaders with broader skills than they have today. Leadership education should be a core part of law school education.

2. “Knowledge Of Other Cultures”

CEOs name cultural competence as one of the most critical leadership skills, according to a recent DDI survey, but managers rank working with people from different cultures as their weakest skill, says Paula Caligiuri, professor of international business and strategy at Northeastern University.

Law is, at its core, about the relationships among people. The people in our communities, businesses and lives come from around the world. The best way to learn about cultures is through familiarity. Law school bodies and legal service organizations must become more representative of a multi-cultural world. Law schools, like leading graduate business schools, should become more diverse. To do that, we must make law an attractive profession.

3. “A Global Mind-set”

An ability to work with diverse cultures also helps companies compete as they conduct business in other countries. In today’s business climate, it’s increasingly crucial to have an understanding of the political and societal impacts on business across multiple countries.

Clients have gone global. Even small companies operate in a global context. Lawyers who constantly work with professionals, clients, and other parties in many countries can help clients navigate the many challenges of doing business in a global environment. Law school classes should evolve to reflect a more encompassing and less U.S.-centric view of the world.

4. “Effective Conflict Resolution”

Companies are placing an increasing emphasis on team members who can work well with others, address issues as they arise, and mitigate major conflicts, says Nihal Parthasarathi, CEO and cofounder of the learning opportunity website CourseHorse.

We claim lawyers are experts in conflict resolution. What we really mean is that lawyers are trained to be warriors. Conflict resolution should start (and end) by resolving the conflict before it reaches the courtroom, mediator, or arbitrator. One way to reduce litigation is to train lawyers how to predict it and resolve it before it reaches an adjudication stage.

5. “A Willingness To Learn”

Another skill needed to be successful is flexibility and openness to learning something new, says Karen Southall Watts, author of Messenger: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Communication. “Gone are the days when a professional in any field could consider their education done and over,” she says. Instead, you must be willing to learn and accept that you will always be adding new skills.

Lawyers focus inward. The drive to specialize and become the expert in a niche area of law has created generations of lawyers without curiosity. It is difficult to be curious when your days are filled with the pressure to generate billable hours. That paradigm must change.

Much that we have learned outside the law (cognitive psychology and behavioral economics are two examples) directly affects the law. Law classes should evolve to include these other concepts as they touch on law. Lawyers also should participate in education throughout their lives. The continuing legal education idea has depreciated learning for lawyers. It should be replaced with substantive and relevant education.

6. “The Ability To Successfully Outsource”

One-third of the U.S. workforce is freelance, and sites like Upwork have 10 million independent contractors doing more than $1 billion of work each year, says innovation consultant Jane Young. But companies need to be able to effectively hire and manage outside talent. “The primary skill required for successfully outsourcing a task or project is the ability to describe what you want clearly and concisely,” she says.

The idea of outsourcing work generates fear in many lawyers. For outside lawyers, it can mean a loss of revenue and control. For in-house lawyers, it can mean loss of a job. Clients do not care. To deliver the best services, we must find the best service providers and combine what they can offer with the best of what lawyers can offer. Law students should learn how to practice law through managing a supply chain of solution providers (even for low and middle income consumers of legal services).

7. “Strong Communication Skills”

As technical skills continue to be in high demand, an ability to pair them with communication skills will be critical to advancing your career, says Daniel Alexander Usera, career consultant and professor at Arkansas State University.

Lawyers are professional persuaders and should have excellent communication skills. Of course, lawyers also need excellent technical skills. The scale seems to have tipped too far in favor of learning the technical and too far away from the communication side.

Much worse, students prefer learning the technical skills over the communication skills. They believe the technical will get them past the bar and into their first job. Law students should learn to embrace technology and let it do what it does best (many of the routine, technical tasks) while they learn skills, such as communication, where technology remains weak.

8. “An Understanding Of Analytics”

Analytics are relevant to all facets of your business and career, and to get ahead, you will need to be able to read and understand them, says Ken Bodnar, chief technology officer of the online auto auction Selectbidder.com.

Understanding analytics does not mean being able to take 10% off an invoice for legal services. The world is awash in data and by 2020 we will have as many as 1 trillion inter-connected devices talking to each other. Law students must understand the data already being generated and how to harness it to improve legal services.

Change the Paradigm

It is easy to talk about the decline in traditional law firm jobs for graduating law students as if that trend is happening in isolation. Curious lawyers will look beyond that statistic and see that it arises in the context of other employment trends. Automation, more recently artificial intelligence, and economic trends are driving significant and long-lasting changes in what employers and clients need. What will separate the successful from those who struggle is not more domain-specific knowledge, but core skills where humans still surpass computers.

Any talk about teaching law students additional skills elicits groans and eye-rolling in academia. Students already have packed schedules. Fitting in more is difficult.

As a Lean thinker, I see it a bit differently. Those schedules include a lot of waste. Some of it has been carried forward 150 years and much has been added along the way. Law school curricula do not need incremental improvements to fit in these soft skills; they need re-invention to teach what law students need to learn.

The American Bar Association stands in the way of this reform, as do many educators. But in an era of MOOCs, Kahn Academy, and Harvard Law School professors offering their courses online to students around the world, we should question our infatuation with adhering to a 150-year-old model.

By teaching the “soft” skills such as the eight listed above, we train law students to do something computers cannot do today. We train them to work with and lead people. Artificial intelligence may take over many tasks. Still, we are not at the day when AI has become our overlord.

Training lawyers to be technicians keeps them from building the skills they can use as AI does take over tasks. It deprives us of leaders and it creates a downward spiral for the profession as clients shed the mundane technical tasks to computers and build skills superior to those of lawyers.

Woodrow Wilson had his fair share of flaws as a man and a president, but he got it right when he said, “You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”


Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Ken Grady’s story.