Valuing ‘Soft Skills’ Will Make Us Better Lawyers

Concept of soft skills mind map in handwritten style.

Soft skills are the hard skills. Professor, author, and leadership researcher Brené Brown recently made this point in her “Dare to Lead” podcast.

Brown, who has worked with organizations ranging from the U.S. military to Pixar and IBM, said that if people are asked to choose a course on learning PowerPoint skills or on having a tough conversation, they would choose PowerPoint 100% of the time. Why? Because having a tough conversation is hard.

Brown’s sentiment made me think about professional responsibility (PR) CLE. We can often discount PR CLE as “soft skill” courses that aren’t as important to our practice. But that’s not the case. Learning how to be less reactive and more professional with opposing counsel is just as important as understanding an update to the Illinois Rules of Civil Procedure. For purposes of this blog, I am defining soft skills as most courses that would qualify for PR CLE credit in Illinois.

How to maximize soft skills training with PR CLE

Each year, the Commission on Professionalism approves CLE courses that fall into the professional responsibility bucket. In 2021, we approved 12,375 PR CLE courses, so there isn’t a lack of courses available.

These courses fall into five areas: professionalism, civility, legal ethics, diversity and inclusion, and mental health and substance abuse.

My reporting period ends in June 2023. So, rather than scrambling to find courses right before the deadline, I’m going to use this blog to show you how I’m intentionally planning out my PR CLE now, with courses that will best meet my needs and further my career goals.

Being a better manager

I’m fortunate to supervise people. While I enjoy helping people succeed and grow as professionals, it’s not easy. I recognize that I could benefit from training on how to best help people maximize their skills and bring out their best work.

Effective management is even more important in our new hybrid world where you may only see your colleagues a few times a week, if at all. There is a lot of competition for talent, so hiring and retention of staff are important for the success of a lawyer’s practice and/or firm.

As a supervisor in a legal setting, we must also keep the Illinois Supreme Court Rules of Professional Conduct in mind, including Rule 5.1, which addresses the responsibilities of partners, managers, and supervisory attorneys.

Therefore, I’m going to keep my eye out for a CLE course that addresses effective employee management.

Succeeding in difficult conversations

This year, I was asked by American Bar Association President Deborah Enix-Ross to serve on her Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility, and Collaboration Commission.

President Enix-Ross recognizes that lawyers are uniquely positioned to use civics, civility, and collaboration to resolve differences and restore confidence in our democratic institutions and in our judicial system to protect the rule of law. This is similar to the Preamble to the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct which states: “In addition, a lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority. ”

More tools to encourage civil discourse are essential right now. I also want to learn more about how lawyers can use civics to help people understand how the three branches of government work, so that more people are on the same page prior to conversations on contentious issues. So, I will look for a PR CLE course that meets these objectives.

Revisiting my professional identity

Did you know that by fall 2023, law schools must provide substantial opportunities for law students to develop their professional identity? The updated ABA standard underscores that the development of professional identity should involve an intentional exploration of the values, guiding principles, and well-being practices considered foundational to a successful legal practice.

This means that in addition to learning how to think like a lawyer, law students will reflect on what it means to be a lawyer and the special obligation we have to our clients, the justice system, and society.

I think practicing lawyers could benefit from such a reflection, too. We don’t often take time to think about our professional identity (or how we exhibit professionalism in our lives), if we are carrying it out the way we intended to, or if there needs to be some redefining.

I am sure I could benefit from taking at least 60 minutes during a CLE to give thought to clarifying my professional identity as a lawyer.

Embracing all diversity

At the Commission on Professionalism’s 2022 The Future Is Now: Legal Services conference, I learned a lot from Haley Moss who spoke on neurodiversity.

We often think of diversity in terms of gender or race, but it’s much more. Diversity also includes things like culture, age, sexual orientation, ability, religion, socioeconomic status, and location, among many others. I want to learn more about how I can better embrace and support diversity, equity, and inclusion for all.

The Commission on Professionalism will soon be releasing an online PR CLE course focused on person-centered language. As lawyers, we talk and write a lot. It’s important to recognize how our language respects or disrespects the dignity, worth, unique qualities, and strengths of every individual.

I look forward to taking this course—keep an eye out for it.

Completing the stress cycle

Thanks to the book “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle,” I now know that, to more easily relax, I need to complete the stress cycle.

When we experience a stressor, like an unexpected diagnosis, it’s easier to numb the feeling by binging on Netflix than it is to feel our emotions. But this doesn’t allow us to express our emotions or process what happened. So, we don’t complete the stress cycle and are stuck in limbo.

With all the stressors we experience as lawyers like constant deadlines and demands that can lead to burnout, this strategy could be very beneficial. I will be looking for a CLE that addresses this and allows people to share ideas on how to implement it in their lives.

Now you’ve heard my PR CLE strategy for acquiring the soft skills that have a big impact on a lawyer’s practice. What is yours? Share your thoughts in the comments.

This blog was originally published on October 28, 2022. 

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