Legal jobs vary widely in responsibilities, and there are about as many different types of law careers as there are lawyers. From the entry-level file clerks who keep a law firm’s records in ship shape all the way up to the judge who presides over cases, law is a challenging and esteemed profession that can be highly rewarding for the right individual.
Known for long days, demanding caseloads, and high-stakes situations, the industry isn’t for everyone.
If You’re Considering a Career in Law, Here Are Eight Skills You’ll Need to Succeed
1. Written and Verbal Communication
So much of a legal professional’s job revolves around words—reading, analyzing, and interpreting in order to draw conclusions that will ultimately be used to decide cases. No matter what level of legal job you hold, you’ll need to be able to convey information clearly and concisely with an acute attention to accuracy. The nuances of language matter in the legal field perhaps more than any other, so having a firm grasp on the English language and the meaning of different terms is key.
The law field is also full of documents—legal briefs, memos, and contracts, to name a few—so you’ll need strong writing skills to draft and respond to these documents. This is especially true for paralegals and legal assistants, who are often tasked with preparing such paperwork.
Finally, you’ll need to have a firm grasp on legal terminology while also being able to speak in plain terms when necessary to communicate with clients and non-legal personnel.
2. Critical Thinking
The most successful people in legal jobs are those who can take a set of information and draw conclusions from it that aren’t immediately discernible. In addition to understanding and processing the information you’re presented with, you’ll need to be able to critically analyze all the pieces to see if they add up to a logical whole, and if not, to determine why.
Legal professionals are skilled at finding holes in arguments, spotting inconsistencies in evidence, and questioning the “obvious” to look for alternative explanations. It’s not enough for you to be able to reach conclusions; you must also be able to illustrate the reasoning that got you there, taking others along on your line of thinking and helping them arrive at the same conclusion.
Walk into a law firm on any given day and you’ll find most of the desks covered with papers and binders. With so many documents and case files to keep track of, meticulous organization skills are a must. To keep everything in order and at arm’s reach when you need it, you’ll need to have a firm handle on filing systems, both physical and digital. It also helps if you’re experienced with digital tools for note taking, file sharing and collaboration.
On the subject of organization, legal jobs require carefully managing not just documents, but your time. Time management is of the essence when your work is literally billed by the minute, as is the case in many firms. So, you’ll need to be proficient with juggling multiple, often-shifting deadlines and prioritizing work so that everything gets done, usually on a tight schedule.
No one is going to treat you with kid gloves in the legal field, even if you’re just starting out. In fact, the bottom of the ladder is one of the most challenging spots to be in. You’ll be tasked with tackling daunting amounts of work on impossibly tight timelines. You’ll get knocked down, make mistakes and experience losses. Your success will depend on your ability to bounce back from these setbacks again and again.
Some call it grit, others determination, but at the end of the day it all comes down to resilience. Law Practice Today defines resilience as one of the most valuable qualities a lawyer can have, arguing that resilient lawyers are “better able to maintain momentum across the uneven landscape of most legal cases.” What’s more, the publication says, resilient lawyers have “a higher wellness quotient, leading to greater productivity and longevity.” In other words, you won’t have a very long legal career without a good amount of resilience.
Most legal jobs, especially paralegals and legal assistants, involve a huge amount of research. Many legal arguments are made based on case law, which is the precedent set by cases that have already been adjudicated. You’ll need to be able to find relevant case law to support your arguments and know where to look for it, from law libraries to public statutes.
Legal professionals are often tasked with becoming proficient in subjects quickly, from forensics to finance or whatever subject a case requires. A good law professional has a knack for finding the necessary information, whether that’s tracking down a hard-to-find witness, uncovering hidden evidence or locating the perfect subject-matter expert to assist on a case.
Being a strong researcher will help ensure that you’re prepared for anything—and more importantly, make sure the firm members who rank above you have the information they need to do their jobs, which is a big part of lower-level law employees’ work.
6. Poise Under Pressure
There are high-pressure situations at every turn in the legal field. The cases you work on have large sums of money, huge public projects and even people’s lives hanging in the balance. Different types of law careers also have the potential to bring you into the circles of some very important people, which can be intimidating. Whether you’re working against the clock to complete a document for a VIP client or facing a jury to make closing arguments in a courtroom, your ability to remain calm under pressure will weigh heavily on how well you can do your job.
Staying cool under pressure takes some practice, and it’s a skill you can hone over time. Still, it comes more naturally to some people than to others. If you’re the person friends and family members rely on in a crisis, or if you’re great at keeping your cool during an argument when the other person is losing their head, you might be well-suited to the high-stakes work of legal jobs.
Legal work requires lots of collaboration. It’s commonplace to have multiple lawyers working alongside a team of paralegals and researchers on any given case. Even in single-lawyer firms, there are usually multiple support staffers who pitch in, not to mention the collaboration you’ll need to do with outside professionals like law enforcement officers and courthouse staffers. This can only happen if you’re a team player who can diffuse conflict and find common ground when there’s a disagreement.
To work effectively as part of a legal team, you’ll need to be able to look past personal differences and do what’s necessary to get the work done. You’ll also work closely with clients, who can sometimes be demanding or downright unpleasant, but being able to get along with them is crucial to doing your job.
8. Current Events Knowledge
One of the lesser-known skills that will serve you well in the legal field is a broad knowledge of current events, like politics, local government and business news. Law doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and what’s going on in the world at the time of a case can have some bearing on how it plays out. What’s more, developments in areas like economic policy may have an impact on the firm and the clients it serves.
Different types of law careers require different current events knowledge; someone working in criminal law, for example, will want to follow the local and regional crime beat. A corporate law employee will want to keep close tabs on business news, while intellectual property law staffers would follow what’s going on in the tech world.
If you’re not a natural news junkie, getting a handle on current events isn’t as tricky as it might sound. Start by following a few reputable news outlets in your niche on Twitter and subscribe to the email list of a publication or two; many media outlets offer a skimmable ‘daily briefing’ style newsletter that’s delivered to your inbox each morning for free.