Problem-solving is vital for legal career

 

You could be forgiven for thinking that watching US TV shows like Law and Order would give you an idea of the skills that a lawyer needs.

The ability to stand in the courtroom, play to the jury and catch out opposition witnesses seem to be a prerequisite for anyone considering a legal career - at least in a TV series.

But what are the skills that you really need to pursue a legal career? It might surprise you to know that while solicitors frequently represent their clients in court, it is by no means a given that they will do so.

While the theatrical aspect of some courtroom performances can be useful in winning a case - a role frequently filled by barristers in Ireland - they are not always essential.

Indeed, there are other equally important skills which you need for a successful career.

According to Ken Murphy, director general of the Law Society, the professional body for solicitors in Ireland, a successful solicitor should have the ability to analyse various situations.

This includes the ability to identify problems in complex legal and fact-based scenarios, he explains. However, he points out that the ability to provide solutions is also essential.

"To some extent, lawyers are professional problem-solvers. People transfer the burden of a problem onto their shoulders, so lawyers have to focus on obtaining the best practical outcome," he explains.

"You need to identify correctly what the problems and issues are and, most importantly, offer solutions."

Legal cases can usually be separated into two types: contentious and non-contentious, Murphy says.

Contentious cases involve some kind of dispute, and often lead to litigation. This means that there are two sides involved and that both are looking for a different outcome.

It is important for a lawyer representing a party in such a case to develop an argument firmly based in law -and to anticipate the others party's argument, Murphy adds.

Non-contentious cases, on the other hand, could include the purchase of a house or the takeover of a business, where lawyers represent a number of parties. In this instance, all parties have a mutual interest in the outcome.

Important legal skills in both types of cases include the ability to negotiate for your client; the capacity to draft documents in a way that expresses things clearly and logically, and advocacy - the ability to put forward your client's case, says Murphy.

"Advocacy is a key legal skill," he says. "But it is not just standing up in court, it is also the ability to argue a case on the telephone, for example."

Solicitors also spend a lot of time conducting client interviews, he points out. The ability to sort out what is relevant - and what is not - is important and requires interpersonal skills, he believes.

"One of the defining skills is people skills - to be able to develop trust and empathy with a client. You need to be capable of realising that this is not just a theoretical legal problem, it's a problem that relates to real people and their lives," he says.

"One of the things we look for is the capacity to relate to people. This is more relevant to solicitors as barristers don't often deal directly with the public."

"Many people have a false impression of the legal profession because of what they see on TV," he continues.

"You really need a capacity for hard work. It's a demanding profession, so you need to be able to handle stress. Lawyers are often workaholics."

People working in the legal profession also have to enjoy reading, says Ivana Bacik, Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College Dublin because case arguments need to be based on thorough research.

Analytical skills also plays a huge role, she agrees.

"You need good analytical skills to distil what you read - and problem-solving skills," she explains.

"Law is not an exact science, but you need to be able to apply law and legal principles to problems."

While the ability to argue persuasively is widely acknowledged as crucial to a barrister's work, Bacik points out that it is also important to a solicitor's work.

"It is important to speak confidently in public, but this can be achieved through practice," she says.

"Passion is also important - law is competitive, so you need to be motivated."