5 questions future lawyers should be able to answer

You know how competitive the market is and how difficult it is to get that training contract. While you are doing all the right things - getting good grades, doing extra-curricular work to boost your CV and developing your commercial awareness - it is perhaps all a bit fraught and outward looking.

Have you taken a few moments to think about who you are and what the key basic skills a good lawyer should have?

Here are 5  questions I suggest it would be worth considering as you start out on your legal career.

1. Who am I?

Do you properly understand what motivates you and where your true strengths actually lie? (For the record, 'attention to detail' and 'team player' are not strengths.) It will be quite difficult to come to some conclusions without some sort of framework on which to build.

At LexisNexis we have used a couple of tools to help staff gain that insight - Insights Discovery and Strengthsfinder. These are not psychometric tests but tools to help you understand your personality type, what excites and interests you and also how you behave when put under stress. You may not agree with all of the conclusions but it will help you understand yourself a bit better.

2. How well do I speak?

Communication is the key to a successful professional life - can you clearly explain complex issues to lawyers and more importantly clients who may not have legal knowledge? Technology has led to many people hiding behind a computer screen but often the fastest and most effective way of getting your point across is to speak to the other person.

In a recent article, a number of senior lawyers said that their younger colleagues were losing the capacity to talk to people and were 'hiding' behind the written word. Much legal work will still be conducted in meetings or on conference calls so are you able to articulate and explain your point of view or advice?

3. How clear is my written English?

You may have improved your speaking skills but as a lawyer you are still most likely to be discussing a document in any call or meeting. How well written is that document i.e. is it clear and comprehensible?

Research into the clarity of legal writing by Christopher Trudeau has also shown that the more intelligent your reader, the more they desire clarity and simplicity of language (see page 142). The use of long words and complex sentence construction does not a good lawyer make (see what I mean). If you want to test how clear your writing is then put it through read-able to find out. A high reading age is not a good thing by the way.

 4. Can I punctuate and use correct grammar?

Incorrect punctuation can cost money. In one case it almost cost a telecoms company $1m Canadian dollars. The case of Aliant Telecoms v Rogers rested on where a comma was placed in a contractual break clause. In the first instance Rogers lost which would have meant paying  $1m extra to use a series of telephone lines. The decision was overturned on appeal ONLY because the comma was in the right place in the French language version of the same contract.

5. Can I use basic software well?

Law firms across the world use Microsoft Office. It is now ubiquitous though there will be a few old stagers who fondly remember WordPerfect with its white text on a blue screen. Office is possibly the most basic software tool of the lawyer’s trade and yet many lawyers don't know how to use it properly. If you don't believe me then I will point you to the General Counsel of Kia Motors, D. Casey Flaherty. Mr. Flaherty developed a basic test of Office skills that he asked lawyers who worked on the Kia account to complete. After all, if a lawyer took a long time to do something there was a good chance that time would end up on the Kia bill.

This is what Mr. Flaherty found:

I’ve administered the audit 10 times to nine firms (one firm took it twice). As far as I am concerned, all the firms failed—some more spectacularly than others. The audit takes me 30 minutes. So, somewhat arbitrarily, I selected 1 hour as passing. The best pace of any associate was 2.5 hours. The worst pace was 8 hours. Both the median and mean (average) pace rounded to 5 hours.  

He goes on to say that:

Basic technological competence is low-hanging fruit, and the object of the audit is its own obsolescence in the very near term. I therefore tailored the audit to the legal market as currently structured.

And

 Technological competence comprises skills that need to be learned. But the learning curve for the basics is neither steep nor long.

All of the above are ‘low-hanging fruit’ and have an initial learning curve that is ‘neither steep nor long.’ It is then just a question of practice.

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