Lawyers Need “Soft Skills”—So Why Aren’t Law Schools Teaching Them?

There can be little doubt that law schools are largely proficient in teaching “hard skills” such as knowledge of the law, legal analysis, research, writing, and drafting. But what about “soft skills”—the general set of skills which influence how people interact, such as communication, leadership, critical thinking, confidence, team building, time management, creativity, public speaking, and problem solving, just to name a few? Most can agree that these skills are needed to be a successful lawyer, but we can also probably agree that they are not being taught in law school.
Other professions have been teaching and using these skills for some time while law schools have been slow to embrace them. Business and medicine are just two examples. If we agree that proficiency in these skills would not only make for happier clients but also more productive working relationships, why not make the teaching of these skills part of our curriculum? Perhaps some lawyers, professors, and students believe that you are either born with these skills or not—and that no specific training is needed to improve them. However, that is simply not true. Research proves that it is possible to develop these skills just as one can develop other skills. As noted in the ABA’s LawPractice Today, “[i]t is astounding that [soft skills] are not taught in law school, and that fact only serves to increase the responsibilities of law firms to create and implement training initiatives that focus on developing an attorney’s service-oriented skills… [a]nd so law firms have begun to teaching these skills—so why shouldn’t law schools?”
The question, of course is how to teach them. I, along with two of my colleagues, am working on a book aimed at bridging this gap by providing information law school professors can use to teach important skills—such as problem solving, creativity, and mindfulness, to their students. While some resources certainly exist, more are needed, along with the recognition of the importance of the skills and a willingness to teach them.

7 Responses

  1. I’m not sure that law schools aren’t teaching these skills. First, legal education is changing rapidly. With new accreditation requirements focusing on experiential education, we are likely to see even more courses that incorporate inter- and intrapersonal skills. Second, most of the skills listed above would not be the subject of a separate course (e.g., “Teamwork 101”) but are rather woven into the fabric of other courses, so are not easy to see these skills from a curriculum survey. I suspect that my clinical colleagues would report that a significant portion of their students’ learning is devoted to these skill sets. So it is difficult to truly know just how much these “soft skills” are actually being taught without more focused research on the question.

    Expansion of these courses will generate new resources such as the book you mention, which will in turn make it easier for even more faculty to direct their courses toward these skills. A fundamental challenge, however, lies in the qualifications of those teaching the law school curriculum. What special qualifications do law faculty have to teach “teamwork” (when most research faculty work in an environment that sometimes discounts co-authorship and collaborations)? How do we measure the skill of potential faculty who we might be asking to teach courses that focus on interpersonal communication or self-knowledge or creativity? To the extent that law schools do continue to focus on “knowledge of the law, legal analysis, research, and writing” the reason may be simply that these outcomes are the ones for which faculty have expertise to share.

    • Thanks for your comments! I agree with you…but hope that some of us who are seeking training and doing research/writing on these topics will be able to offer such courses. I agree with you that certain courses undoubtedly do already offer such teaching, but I wonder how many students have the opportunity to take them?

  2. I teach a number of these soft skills at Appalachian School of Law in our dispute resolution curriculum. I also teach meditation in our Intro to Law class, along with self-awareness through the enneagram.

  3. Thank you for addressing this important topic, and I very much look forward to your book. But I strongly urge you to abandon the term “soft skills” as subject to misinterpretation and undervaluation of what we are all trying to teach. These are very much fundamental and essential skills for client-centered, effective lawyering. They are not optional or merely incidental to what lawyer’s do. Would love to hear others’ suggestions of how to characterize these skills in a way that better imparts their value: interactive skills? interpersonal skills? project management skills?

  4. I completely agree with you, and I like all your other suggestions, except that I wonder if it is possible that “soft skills” can encompass more than each of those individually? Maybe there is another term which can encompass all of the skills we know to be fundamental and essential, as you aptly noted!

  5. Emotional Intelligence

  6. […] 8)  Lawyers need “Soft Skills”–So Why Aren’t Law Schools Teaching Them? […]

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