Kiser’s Soft Skills for the Effective Lawyer

I was really pleased to meet Randall Kiser at last year’s ABA conference.  I was very impressed by his important study (co-authored with Martin Asher and Blakeley McShane), Let’s Not Make a Deal: An Empirical Examination of Decision Making in Unsuccessful Negotiations.  The top-line finding was that in 85.5% of cases, parties went to trial when one of the parties would have been better off to accept the other side’s last offer.  Plaintiffs received an award less than or equal to the defendant’s last offer in 61.2% of the cases and defendants were ordered to pay more than the plaintiff’s last demand in 24.3% of the cases.

Randy is the principal analyst at DecisionSet®, which consults with lawyers and law firms to improve their effectiveness.  He has written several books including Beyond Right and Wrong: The Power of Effective Decision Making For Attorneys and Clients and How Leading Lawyers Think: Expert Insights Into Judgment and Advocacy.

He just came out with an excellent new book, Soft Skills for the Effective Lawyer, continuing his work to help lawyers do and be the best they can.  He defines soft skills as including “intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies such as practical problem solving, stress management, self-confidence, initiative, optimism, interpersonal communication, the ability to convey empathy to another, the ability to see a situation from another’s perspective, teamwork, collaboration, client relations, business development, and the like” (quoting Susan Daicoff).

He presents research showing that legal clients especially value these skills in lawyers.  Much research on lawyers, such as the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System’s “Foundations of Practice” study, shows that many practicing lawyers also highly value these skills – often much more than the skills we generally emphasize in law school.

Readers of this blog would obviously recognize these as precisely the skills we focus on in our theory, teaching, and practice.  The chapters deal with self-awareness, self-development, social proficiency, wisdom, leadership, and professionalism.  Each of these subjects include quite a number of specific skills.

The book synthesizes a great deal of research on psychology and lawyers, citing numerous empirical studies.  Teachers probably wouldn’t assign this as a required reading, but it would be useful as a recommended reading for law students who want to get a head-start on honing skills that they will really need after graduation.  It would also be of interest to faculty and administrators for decisions about what to emphasize in their courses and academic support activities.  Scholars interested in this subject would find this book of particular value.

6 thoughts on “Kiser’s Soft Skills for the Effective Lawyer”

  1. As a current law student, I think this post is incredibly relevant to my legal education. I see a huge disconnect in the relevant skills we are taught and the skills that clients continually cite as being the most important in hiring and keeping an attorney. While there is quite a difficult balancing test between teaching students the required and relevant law needed to begin practicing as an attorney, there is also a need to teach students the importance of the “soft skills” that make an attorney just as, if not more, effective.

    In Randall Kiser’s new book, he defines several examples of “soft skills” that attorneys will need in practice. While some skills seem pretty standard (teamwork, communication, and problem solving), some of the skills that really stuck out to me include stress management, self-confidence, and optimism. The more standard skills of teamwork, communication, and problem-solving can be taught in various required law courses, and then built upon in upper level courses such as Advanced Dispute Resolution.

    However, I find it very interesting that Kiser finds skills like stress management and self-confidence just as important to effective lawyering. I know the life of law students and attorneys are incredibly stressful, but it is refreshing to see someone stress the importance of teaching law students (and even practicing attorneys) the necessity of obtaining stress management, self-confidence, and optimism skills. This particular type of soft skill set is generally perceived as more of a self-care/self-love skill; however, they are also necessary skills to develop to become a successful attorney.

    I personally resonated with the skill sets highlighted in this comment because I think there could be more done in terms of teaching and stressing more soft skills in order to make sure that attorneys know more than just the law when they graduate from school. While I do think there should be more done than just recommending a reading of Kiser’s books, it is a great place to start.

  2. This post made me think about the learning that we do in law school. It is geared towards learning the laws statutes and how the different courts rule on topics. The majority of law school classes focus on teaching us what we need to know when it comes to the laws. The soft skills are left for us to figure out when we start practicing law. It is hard for law schools to teach us the substantive law and the effective ways to be an attorney. This would make becoming an affective attorney sooner a more attainable goal if we would learn these skills sooner.

    While i can see that some of these skills are learned through the work load of law school such as problem solving and stress management. It makes me wonder if at the beginning of the blog when it talks about the 85% of cases that should have been settled rather than gone to trial would have been different with a different attorneys advice. This is something that I hope will continue to be a topic of discussion at the law school level.

  3. This post made me think of what so many practicing attorneys have said to me: “Law school doesn’t prepare you for being a practicing attorney.” There are so many skills, unrelated to the law, that an effective lawyer must have. For example, how do you talk to a client? What about a difficult client? How do you interact with opposing counsel? i.e. “soft skills.” I think it is hard to find the right balance between learning the substantive/procedural law and learning how to be an effective lawyer in law school. Should law schools require more supervised field work to teach such skills? Would such a requirement add another year? How do you test on soft skills?

    In theory, recommending books and articles on soft skills to students would be a good alternative. However, with all the required reading law students have, I doubt many students would voluntarily partake in such readings. Perhaps the best option is to require an Alternative Dispute Resolution course.

  4. It comes as no surprise that the soft skills set (optimism, communication, empathy, etc.) are valued by both clients and colleagues. I suppose that if someone surveyed individuals for the qualities of “a good person” most of those same qualities would make the list. I think that often people feel that to be successful they need to possess one skill set for work and another for their personal lives. In other words, it might be acceptable to show empathy toward a trusted friend, but to do so at work could be conceived as weakness. But, this study suggests the opposite. In fact, being a “good person” and being a “good lawyer” does not have to be mutually exclusive.

    The focus in most law school classes is on the legal issues or more accurately the one issue that we need to ferret out from a case. This, unfortunately, trains future lawyers to see clients not as people, but as a walking bundle of legal issues. I read a similar article about medical students. Much like law students they are trained to spot the issues—the symptoms of various illnesses. However, little time was devoted to their “bedside manner.” Someone either had a good manner, because they naturally displayed the same soft skills you mention, or they did not. Medical schools were not teaching bedside manner they were teaching medical issue spotting. The article concluded with a look at medical schools that were changing the lack of bedside manner training—to the benefit of patients and doctors alike. Perhaps it is time for the legal equivalent of good bedside manner training.

  5. I completely agree with comment regarding not emphasizing these soft skills enough in law school. I am a law student, and just recently participated in the mediation clinic, an internship that is offered through the law school. As part of the internship, we were required to complete mediation training. Over the course of the three-day training, I found that most of the skills we were trained to develop and utilize during mediation were contrary to many of the skills that are emphasized in law school. In my opinion—and I think many people would agree—law school is very litigation oriented, and thus trains its students to take adversarial approaches to problem solving. As a result, law school students are underexposed to the alternative dispute resolution aspects, and therefore are not always provided with the guidance necessary to develop these soft skills (which, as you know, are crucial no matter what area of law you intend to practice). I think that students that go to law school with the goal of being a great lawyer and actually want to help people, then development of these skills is a must. And while some of these skills are innate in people, others may need the education and training to help develop these skills. Without these soft skills, I am not sure how attorneys expect to (1) develop clientele and (2) retain their current clients.

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