It's good to talk: life skills for lawyers
Jonny Hurst explores how we can help students hone their ‘talking’ skills – crucial for a career in law
Although there is still a long way to go, the profession is more diverse than it was a decade ago, with many firms having made significant changes to their trainee recruitment strategy. So, with trainee cohorts becoming more representative of the world we live in, what new challenges arise?
One we have identified at BPP is ‘talking’ – in particular, the art of ‘small talk’ and managing difficult conversations.
According to the Law Society, although more than half of all solicitors are female and almost a fifth are from minority ethnic groups, either matching or outstripping their proportions in the general working population, just a third are from less privileged socio-economic backgrounds.
Although many stakeholders run outreach programmes specifically aimed at attracting more entrants from traditionally under-represented backgrounds, in a survey of BPP law students, almost half expressed a concern they will be judged because of the way they speak. More than eight in ten believed candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds would have a hard time fitting in simply by virtue of their accent or the vocabulary they use.
There is no doubt that a private education and/or middle-class upbringing informs those students of the rules of engagement and gives them opportunities to practise their oral skills from an early age. So, what can be done to develop these skills for those students and junior lawyers who feel less prepared for talking in unfamiliar settings?
Conversational competence is one of those important executive attributes legal recruiters look for, but is often overlooked by candidates as something they should work on. Getting a job, working with and maintaining relationships with clients and courting new ones all require an ability to use small talk as a segway to achieving a business goal or opportunity.
Of course, it can help in many other ways too, such as day-to-day interactions with peers, supervisors and in team meetings. So, at BPP, we have launched a series of workshops designed to support students who wish to improve their ability to make ‘small talk’ in a professional context.
Few junior lawyers enter the profession with managerial or client experience, but they need to be prepared to deal with ‘difficult’ people. While previous encounters with relatives, friends, teachers and fellow students may have ended with an argument, studied indifference, or a weary eye-roll, they are not realistic options in a professional environment.
Coaching students to stay calm, allowing time and ‘space’ for each party to listen, making a point of showing respect in cases of disagreement, and reflecting on a ‘difficult’ verbal exchange are just some of the strategies junior lawyers should learn at the outset of their career.
There has been a tendency to rely on junior lawyers picking up these skills ‘on the job’, through learned experience. My point is that such experience can often be challenging, particularly when encountered for the first time, so why make it more difficult than it needs to be? Empowering our students with the right strategies before they enter the workplace just makes sense.
But will students be receptive to such learning opportunities or view them as irrelevant or patronising? Part of the ‘problem’ is that we ‘don’t know what we don’t know’ and in my experience, there is an assumption amongst a proportion of junior lawyers that, because they have experienced conflict management and social interaction from the start of their formative years, there is nothing more to learn. The challenge we have as educators and employers is to challenge and change this misconception.
Being confident in an unfamiliar setting
Few of us are confident in an unfamiliar environment, and such a lack of confidence is exacerbated in those who suffer from anxiety or are naturally shy. There are simple steps that individuals can take to appear more confident.
If we were absolutely honest, at the start of our careers, most of us lack the self-awareness we acquire later on, and that includes an awareness of our body language. In our early twenties, did we really ”stand tall”, look ‘comfortable’, and portray open, positive body language to convey a sense of ease and confidence? I know I didn’t and I see this mirrored in a good proportion of the students I meet and teach.
In a digital world, where eye contact on screen is essential to retain the engagement of our audience, how to do we manage the constant diversions and distractions of pop-up messages, social media alerts and so on? It is no different in person. It is also tempting, when engaging in an important conversation, to look away every few seconds, survey the room for inspiration, or engage with a mobile or other electronic device. The key is to generate an awareness of these coping mechanisms before working with students on how they overcome them.
Speaking clearly and slowly gives us time to consider the most appropriate response and, in turn, implies reflection and confidence. It is natural, when nervous, to talk quickly and indistinctly. It is tempting to think that it helps hide our embarrassment if we deliver our message in a torrent of words. But by doing so, we only advertise our discomfort. Yet, most people average 150-200 words per minute conversationally.
So, when teaching techniques for advocacy, interviewing and advising, encouraging students to slow down the speed of their verbal delivery is an easy win. More often than not, the message becomes both more engaging and compelling – but without this simple intervention, such behaviours won’t change and risk becoming entrenched.
The power of silence
Teaching students to listen and be comfortable with silence can be challenging, because our natural instinct is to fill the void with something meaningful. It is a strategy that needs to be taught, particularly if a student is too focused on their own agenda. Such students risk failing to listen properly to what is being said or pick up on the other party’s body language. That, in turn, risks leading to misunderstanding, disengagement, and further anxiety.
Teaching that there is nothing wrong with a short pause in a conversation can suggest mature reflection and help create the space for the message to sink in. Again, simple feedback can have a hugely positive impact.
My point is that talking skills need more oxygen, if you will.
The law is a sociable profession and, for most of us, being successful depends on effective human interaction. We owe it to those who don’t feel ”career ready” with their small talk and oral skills to help develop them during their education. Isn’t that preferable to leaving junior lawyers to work it out for themselves in the working world?
Studying and working can both be intensely competitive and isolating in equal measure. Whatever other challenges a junior lawyer may face, they should be able to call on the support of others. Taking the time to forge relationships and make connections with peers, managers and mentors, not only builds up a support network, it is also vital to their growth at the start of their careers. And that all begins by talking.
Jonny Hurst is a senior lecturer and head of outreach and student recruitment at BPP University Law School bpp.com He is a former law firm partner.