Soft Skills: How to Future-Proof a Career in Law

As artificial intelligence displaces some legal work, lawyers are freed to focus on higher value tasks — for which uniquely human skills are critical

It was once unthinkable that routine corporate legal work could become automated in a sector seen as generally risk averse. That, however, is the new reality facing law firms. A PwC report found that in the next two decades about 114,000 legal jobs are likely to be automated, on top of 31,000 jobs that have already been lost.

However, automation is most likely to come for lower-level employees doing most of the grunt work for the equity partners. Artificial intelligence (AI) frees attorneys up to do more bespoke and interesting tasks, says Toni Jaeger-Fine, assistant dean at Fordham Law School in New York City.

“When I was a junior litigation associate, I spent endless hours doing discovery. It had to be done, but it was tedious. There were few occasions to show your smarts after the repetitive work ate so much time.” Today, she argues technology gives junior attorneys the chance to develop much more quickly, and with more opportunities to distinguish themselves.

Law firms are embracing digitization

Law firms have been slow to embrace digitization. They deal in knowledge rather than products and their healthy profit margins have not necessitated them to overhaul their business models with technology. But that is changing as client demand and the search for savings push them to adopt smart contracts, automated document production, even AI that can speed up due diligence and help price deals.

Law schools agree that so-called “soft skills” will be central to the career success of lawyers in the future, since they are hard to automate.

Jaeger-Fine recently wrote a book called Becoming a Lawyer: Discovering and Defining Your Professional Persona, and it deals with the range of attitudes and behaviors that professionals should focus on. These include many of soft skills that are the foundations for a successful legal career, including leadership, emotional intelligence, self-management and sound judgement. Perhaps most importantly, the coronavirus pandemic has shown the importance of resilience.

“Because AI allows for less time to be spent on administrative tasks, lawyers have more time to spend focusing on their clients, better understanding the business risks they face, and offering more value through building relationships and connecting on a human level,” says Val Myteberi, associate dean for graduate, international and online programs at Cardozo School of Law in NYC.  

“However, there must always be a balance between focusing on the hard skills necessary to succeed in law and the soft skills in order for our work to be of the highest quality possible.”

She says law firms and companies use AI every day in their work to maximize accuracy and speed. So while AI allows lawyers to be more efficient, it won’t replace the crucial relationship-building aspect of the profession.

Therefore, she says companies are often looking for students who are able to think quickly and creatively in high-pressure, complex situations, as well as those who are quick learners.

The importance of the human touch

Rebecca Moor, associate director for professional development at Boston University School of Law, says that the move toward AI in some sectors is less of an issue for LL.M. students, who are marketable because of the unique skills that they have, such as cultural knowledge and language skills, if they are from overseas.

“The cross-border and multi-cultural transactions and relationships that LL.M. graduates specialize in really require the nuanced human touch that no AI can have,” she says.

More broadly, teamworking skills and the ability to communicate with all types of people, both within and outside of the company or firm, in multiple jurisdictions, is valuable to LL.M. employers, says Moor.

She believes it makes good sense to focus on the soft skills that are hard to automate. This happens in all the career-related programming at BU Law, but soft skills can also be nurtured in the classroom and during informal social events. “One of the best things any law student can do to future-proof their career is to focus on developing strong professional networks,” says Moor.

The most important first step, according to Jaeger-Fine, is to be more deliberate. “If we are intentional about our attitudes and behaviors, we can grow in ways we may never have imagined,” she says.

It is also important that we be open to receiving and incorporating feedback, she adds. “We tend to look at feedback as criticism, but feedback is really an investment in our professional development and an opportunity to grow and evolve.”

How can LL.M. students develop soft skills?

Myteberi says students should think holistically; soft skills can’t be developed through any single course or experience on its own. “The work necessary to develop the most important skills happens when students take advantage of every opportunity to learn, while being challenged to venture outside of their comfort zones.”

With an open mind, she says students will observe and absorb what’s happening around them, making them better future employees, and keeping them motivated to learn what’s important to their employers and clients. In short: soft skills make better legal professionals.

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