Wait, You Mean My Legal Skills Might Be Useful for Something Else?
The other day, I wrote about the key skills that scuba diving teaches you that you can use to succeed in any career. The truth is, what I am more familiar with are the skills that I learned in law school and from eight years spent practicing as an attorney. Reflecting on my time in school and at a law firm, I realized just how many skills a lawyer brings to the table.
You know the old saying, “you should go to law school – you can do anything with a law degree!”? Well it is sort of a joke among many lawyers because it sometimes doesn’t seem like there is anything we lawyers know how to do but practice law.
However, I am here to break that myth and to shed some light on what I think are the three key skills that you will learn in law school and in your first years of practicing law that can be used in all parts of your life. These are skills that you can take with you wherever you go and in any career you choose, whether it is within the law or outside the law. You might feel like all you know how to do is “legal stuff” but that is definitely not true!
Read on to see how these legal skills you have acquired should be seen as huge assets to potential employers in other, non-legal fields, too. Maybe you’ll even start to think about yourself in a different light.
If you are looking for a job, figure out how you can highlight these skills on a resume or in an interview. And if you are not looking for anything new, but are wondering what value you bring to the table, simply remind yourself of these skills and how valuable of an asset you are to whatever job you are currently in.
Top 3 Legal Skills All (Good) Lawyers Have and Can Take With Them Wherever They Go
1. Project Management Master
Whether it is a team of junior associates, your pro bono immigration client, the new paralegal, or your boss (good lawyers know how to manage “up” too), you will become a master of project management after only a short time as a lawyer.
In a big law firm, this usually happens quickly because, as the junior member of a team, you will be charged with coordinating major projects, such as deal closings. While the technical legal details might be left to more senior associates and the negotiating aspects left to the partner, it will be your sole responsibility to ensure that every single closing documents is signed and delivered on the closing date.
This often involves coordinating hundreds of documents and dealing with your clients, the other side, the other side’s attorneys, your firm’s word processing and copy departments, paralegals, summer associates and more. On your first deal, you might feel like a fish out of water. But after you have a few under your belt, you’ll develop your own system for managing a large project.
There are other opportunities to learn how to manage projects in the law, too. If you have a pro bono client, you’ll likely be left to manage the client’s entire case on your own. There won’t be anyone there telling you how to manage the project so you will figure it out on your own and become the master of every last detail.
There is nothing like wrangling a reluctant pro bono client to remember to come to meetings or make a court appearance, so not only will you learn how to schedule things and manage the case, but you’ll learn how to manage a difficult client at the same time – which can be half the battle in project management.
And it’s not just in Biglaw where you’ll learn this skill. For example, if you are a solo practitioner or work at a small firm, instead of one or two huge deals going on at once, you’ll probably have many deals, cases and clients all at the same time, all vying for your attention. You can consider your entire practice as one big project, and you will become a master at managing your schedule to make room for every piece of the puzzle.
Take-away: You might not realize it as it is happening, but the longer you spend working as a lawyer, the better and better you’ll become at project management. One day you’ll wake up and notice that you are overseeing five huge deals at once, each with many colleagues and many moving pieces.
Your ability to manage a large team, demanding clients, hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of documents and a tight time-line all at the same time means that you’ll be prepared to manage any project that is thrown your way, in any job you have.
2. Confidence – You Get What You Want
If you don’t ask for what you want, you are going to be disappointed in the life you have. The same goes for your legal career, for a couple of reasons. And these reasons are why all good attorneys master the art of asking for what they want, and getting what they want.
The first is the confidence to ask for what you want in your career. Do you want to work with a certain transactional group or a certain partner? Good lawyers don’t just sit around passively waiting, hoping someone will read your mind and pick you. They ask for the assignment. Over and over, because asking once and getting rejected is like not asking at all.
Good lawyers realize that confidence in asking for what you want is the key to winning for their clients, too. The key is learning how to see what others want, figuring out what you can offer them, what they can offer you, and end the negotiation on a “win-win.”
I’m sure you’ve heard that before – that the end goal of a negotiation is to create a “win-win” for everyone. But what you really want, and the skill you will learn as you become a really good lawyer, is that you always want to be the winner of a win-win. Let me explain. You want everyone to end up feeling like a winner – but the more skilled you are, the more likely you are to be the true winner in a “win-win” situation, gaining more of what you want and giving up the least amount possible.
Take-away: A skilled lawyer knows what she wants and how to get it, all while making everyone else think they got what they wanted, too. I’m sure you can imagine that this is helpful not only in whatever business you end up in, but also in your regular life too! Negotiations with your husband about what movie to watch, what to eat for dinner and where to vacation become strategy sessions in your mind without you even realizing it, and you end up getting everything you want (with everyone else still winning, too!).
3. Issue Spotting and the Ability to See the Details Nobody Else Sees
Lawyers are famously detail-oriented. You’ll likely never meet a good lawyer who doesn’t obsess over the details of a transaction or a court filing, and hold himself and his co-workers to the highest of standards. It is ingrained in lawyers’ heads like nobody else’s to check and re-check things, to make sure not a detail is missed and to always be on the look-out for possible issues.
Constantly being on the look-out for issues and spotting the things in the details that others have missed are also what makes a great lawyer stand out. The earlier you spot something, the sooner you can take care of it. A client might not like that you are constantly brining up issues, but if they took a step back, they’d realize how grateful they are that you raised the issue when you did and fixed it when it could still be fixed.
This type of perfectionism can sway too far to the obsessive end of the spectrum, so here’s a brief word of warning. I remember sending out an invitation for a friend’s baby shower a few years into practicing law and I reviewed that e-vite about a hundred times before I finally hit send, making sure that I hadn’t missed one single comma, period or had god forbid misspelled something. Be careful not to let your obsession with details take up too much of your time, wasting it on things like perfecting a party invitation.
Take-away: I can guarantee that whatever field you venture into next will not be as detail-obsessed as the law. You might not be spotting issues for your legal clients anymore, but issue-spotting and paying attention to details are a part of every job. Being the person who is able to catch something early on and who always knows the details of every aspect of a project means you’ll be a most valuable member of any team.
Your Legal Skills Can Take You Anywhere
I’m my own example of how my legal skills have taken me out of the law, but are still useful in my everyday life and I know they’ll be useful as I figure out my next career as well. Even in this new adventure of blogging, each of the three skills has come into play over and over again.
I’m managing my own project (e.g., this blog!), always asking for and getting what I want (e.g., a recent refund for a dud of an online course!) and using my detail-oriented ways to my advantage (it’s unlikely you’ll see a misspelling in any invitation I ever send out!).
How have you used the skills you’ve learned as a lawyer to do other things? Maybe it’s something you’ve learned how to do in your non-work life, or in another career entirely. I’d love to hear more about it, so shoot me an email or post your advice in the comments below.