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What advice would you give to your younger self? What key skills do young lawyers of today need? What tips can you give to help lawyers achieve their best?
LexisNexis’ Director of Transformation Kate Gaskell recently gave a speech at Legal Cheek’s LegalEd Con 2020 conference, which was held virtually this year. In an interview with Legal Cheek before her speech (which can be found here), Kate gave her thoughts on the skills required to be a successful 21st century lawyer, and on the
future of the legal industry.
We caught up with her to find out more about these topics and her role within LexisNexis. Kate has worked at LexisNexis since 2011, and in her nine years at the company, she has worked as a PSL, and as Head of LexisPSL Finance Group, before progressing
to her current role, where she implements transformation projects for LexisNexis. I started by asking Kate to expand on one particular topic she spoke about at Legal Cheek:
Legal technical skills: ‘I spoke at Legal Cheek about three essential skills. The first one was legal technical skills - so a good understanding of the black letter law, an ability to problem-solve, technical grasp of legal issues
and being able to do legal research really well - that’s really the foundation of any lawyer’s practice.’ The enduring importance of that first particular skill was something that Kate stressed: ‘I don’t think that skill
goes away even as your career advances - you will always need to do some element of legal research, and interrogate technical legal points of law.’
Business Knowledge: ‘I think that providers of legal services need to demonstrate to their clients that they are more than just a provider of legal services - that they are a true business partner. That means understanding the client’s
industry or sector. It also means appreciating how businesses are run, and how they are appraised and assessed. I think it also means understanding the business of law; having good business development skills, networking skills, and marketing skills
- I think those are important as well.’
To specialise or not to specialise: I wanted to know whether Kate thought that the level of business understanding required of legal professionals was driving young professionals to become more specialised. She said: ‘I think that
if you have a reason for wanting to specialise, then specialising is a good thing. For example, people come into law now from a variety of different backgrounds - and with that comes the opportunity to specialise. If you have done a science or engineering
degree, for instance, then you might find yourself wanting to specialise in an area of law like life sciences or technology. I think that is really powerful - when you come to an area of law because you are interested in it and there is a driving
force behind it.’
‘I don’t think you need to specialise, I think what’s really important is being open-minded. I think there will be areas of law that develop over the next few years that do not exist right now, and being open to exploring and investigating
and researching new areas is going to be really important as well.’
Embracing failure: ‘The third attribute that I talked about is something that I think can differentiate good lawyers from great lawyers. It is having a resilient mindset - so learning to embrace failure and challenge, and to bounce
back from adversity quickly. I think that is really important to create an environment where people can innovate and take risks.’
EQ: Kate believes, importantly, that this skill allows lawyers to position themselves as ‘invaluable’ to clients: ‘‘Emotional Intelligence, or EQ, is being able to communicate effectively, to listen. It’s
to be able to listen skilfully, empathise with other people - I think that’s a really key differentiator. I think that curiosity is also really important. Traditionally, lawyers are hard-wired to problem-solve quickly - but I think the lawyer
who can approach a client’s issue with curiosity and flexibility can position themselves as someone who is able to offer a variety of perspectives and solutions - and I think you make yourself invaluable in that way.’
Making human connections: The impact of the coronavirus pandemic, she believes, has highlighted that law is a people business at its heart: ‘At its core, law is a human business, so no matter where law is going ultimately, no amount
of tech can be a substitute for a human being, who invests in building a relationship with another human being. What we are seeing now, in our current circumstances, our current set-up is that we’ve all moved to remote working overnight. All
generations of lawyers have embraced technology that they might not have heard of eight or nine weeks ago. But what everybody is really craving is face-to-face human interaction, and I don’t think that is ever going to go away - the human aspect
is crucial, in my opinion.’
‘I have observed in recent years that young lawyers are entering the profession with more awareness of wanting a work/life balance, generally speaking. I think that is because of the different routes into the profession now - it’s not such
a linear process as it was when I was in practice, where the process was trainee associate, senior associate, then partner. Now there are so many other options - there’s counsel route, there’s consulting… There are roles in law
firms that didn’t exist when I was in practice - such as innovation specialists and legal design specialists. With that comes more opportunity to predict your workload and to take control of your work/life balance.’
She spoke about the importance of having a work/life vision that incorporates extracurriculars from the offset: ‘I think it is very helpful to come into anything with a vision for what you would like it to be. You don’t need a five-year plan
in my opinion, but I think that it is useful to say ‘I want to do well in this profession and give it my all, but I also want to be able to play squash on a Thursday evening, and see my friends on a Saturday - and keeping that in mind is helpful.
It’s important that you are a whole person. Your job and your career is just one aspect of who you are, and it’s important to keep all the other parts of your personality throughout your career.’
Her advice to lawyers entering the profession now is to have an awareness of their own limits: ‘I think there is much more awareness now in the legal profession of mental health and balance, and of the need to be flexible. That’s a really
good shift - the profession is more willing to talk about mental health awareness. But you can only really benefit from that if you’re willing to be a part of the discussion, so if you find that you yourself are struggling - and it’s sometimes
not easy to do - but you need to put a hand up and say to yourself: this isn’t working, I need to adjust things.’
‘There’s lots of different things that you can do to look after your own mental health. Extracurricular activities are helpful, having a good support network around you, etc. I think that tapping into your network of peers is really important
too - seeing your peers as allies rather than as competition.’
‘In my early years at LexisNexis, I found it really indulgent to have the time to really understand my area of practice, from a technical black letter law standpoint. I was a transactional lawyer, and that was often about getting the deal done -
so it was really fun to spend hours reading case reports and judgments, I’m a little bit of a nerd in that way.
I’ve definitely learnt about technology, too. I wouldn’t profess to be a tech expert but I now know what basic code looks like, and I understand our process for developing tech products, which is something that I never would have imagined
I would have understood ten years ago!
Working so closely with so many lawyers from so many different disciplines, I have learnt about other areas of practice that I didn’t experience myself in practice. I’ve learnt that a lot of the themes and challenges that come up for people
are the same. A lot of the time people are grappling with the same things - there’s a lot of shared experience amongst lawyers.’
‘You have to do what makes you happy, and what lights you up. That doesn’t mean every day is going to be a brilliant day - but your career will absorb a really sizeable chunk of your waking hours, so the best thing you can do is choose something
that energises you more than it depletes you. That means something that makes good use of your skills, and that you feel you are a good fit for - and that you enjoy doing, basically! Life is short, and you never know what’s coming - as these
last eight weeks have shown us!’
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