Looking to give your career a boost? Focus on soft skills, particularly developing your communication abilities.
Whether you’re on the law firm management track or looking to move up the ladder in a supporting role, the ability to effectively convey thoughts – both verbally and in writing – is a key requirement for career advancement in the legal field.
As technology has made it easier to interact with other professionals, communication skills have taken on added importance. In fact, electronic communication often takes precedence over in-person interactions in today’s workplace. In addition, with more and more firms relying on project teams to carry out e-discovery and other legal initiatives, the ability to communicate well and work on a team is essential.
In light of the increased focus on soft skills, consider these tips for enhancing yours:
Yes, writing skills still matter. Written documents still dominate the legal profession, of course, but more casual writing also requires your attention. Whether writing a detailed memo or short email, get to the point right away. Review your writing carefully to make sure your points are clear to others who are not as familiar with the subject matter as you are. Finally, be sure to proofread and spell check. Even minor typos and grammatical errors can send an unfavorable impression.
Listen. Verbal communication is as much about listening as it is about talking. Focus on what is being said rather than trying to formulate a response in your head while the other person is still speaking. This is especially important when you’re working on a team.
Mind your body language. To successfully connect with others, you need a confident, persuasive communication style and an air of receptiveness toward others. If you’ve ever been unnerved by a colleague’s crossed arms, head shaking or perpetual frown while you made a presentation, you know how nonverbal gestures can convey a negative impression. On the other hand, smiling, nodding, maintaining eye contact and leaning forward in your seat can signal you’re engaged and receptive to what is taking place.
Consider the context. No single method of communication is effective in every situation. If a message is routine and doesn’t require a lengthy explanation, an email or voice mail may be fine. However, if a message is complex or nuanced, as many legal communications are, a phone or in-person conversation that allows for easy back-and-forth exchanges is probably best.
Seek feedback. Find a mentor whose communication style you admire and ask for frequent feedback on your verbal and written communication skills. Taking a public speaking course, volunteering to make presentations or offering to give a status report at a meeting are other ways to hone your abilities. Also, ask your mentor to review your writing and presentations beforehand to evaluate the content, tone and delivery style.
Although communication abilities are not always explicitly requested in legal job descriptions, they’re tacit requirements for advancement into positions of greater importance and visibility. With this in mind, give as much attention to developing your verbal, written and nonverbal communication skills as you would to building your legal knowledge or your professional network. Your efforts to become more well rounded can only help your career.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.