The Top Five Skills Necessary to be a Lawyer

Hello to the blogosphere! Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Joanne Lipo Zovic, and I am a 1999 MULS grad. By way of background, my current (and very schizophrenic) professional life is comprised of a small private practice, work on a court-appointment in Chapter 128 cases, and teaching both at MULS and UWM and some private training (my teaching is all in the field of Negotiations). This rather unique work life reflects my deliberate effort to have flexibility in order to fulfill my most demanding job as a mother of four teenagers. Crazy as it may appear, it works . . . most of the time.

When I was contacted about being an alumni blogger some time last year, I paused for a brief moment and then said yes. Like the bliss of pregnancy and the denial of eventual childbirth, blogging seemed painless. However, . . . it began to feel uncomfortable as February began to loom.

What could I possibly write about? And more . . . what can I write about that would be at all interesting to the readers, whoever they may be. I was reminded of the scene in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” where Steve Martin’s character chides John Candy’s character as Candy blathers on and on endlessly. Martin advises Candy that when you tell a story, you should try to have a point because “it makes it so much more interesting for the listener.”

So with that in mind, I set about thinking of something with a point, something interesting. Since I (along with my dear colleague Andrea Schneider) teach one of the two sections of the Negotiation Workshop at MULS, I spend a lot of time thinking about skills related to successful negotiation, something lawyers do daily on any number of different planes. I have my own sense of what skills are important to being an effective lawyer, and certainly some of the recent criticisms of legal education present views on the skills needed to be an effective lawyer, so I decided to seek the input of my colleagues.

I sent out a very informal and un-scientific survey to my neighbors (swing a cat, hit a lawyer on my block!) and to the lawyers on my contact list (friends, colleagues and former students turned lawyers) asking each what they believed to be the most important skills to being an effective lawyer (with a maximum of five).

I got 38 responses back (thanks to all of you for taking the time) from lawyers in traditional private practice, from large and small firms and across all practice areas (IP, family, criminal, creditor’s right, employment, mental health, immigration, litigation of many types, appellate practice and estate planning to name a few); from public service lawyers (DAs, GALs, court commissioners, city attorneys, state appointees); from in-house counsel (manufacturing, real estate, sales support, medical ethics, athletics, and financial services); from ADR practitioners (mediators, trainers, RJ practitioners and conflict management consultants); and from academia (librarians, doctrinal law faculty, skills curriculum faculty).

I reviewed the responses and saw lots of agreement across practices and thought it would be most interesting to create a word map. So, I entered the responses into “Wordle”, a web tool and then this tool, created a visual collection of all the data and the relative size of a given response reflects the frequency of the data point.

From the 38 participants, the top five skills necessary to be an effective lawyer are:

1. Communication

2. Listening

3. Writing

4. Negotiation

5. Time Management

If you really think about it, this is not surprising, and interestingly, it is consistent with the critiques of legal education that we need to teach both analytical skills and skills deemed “soft” (and so somehow less meriting academic endeavor).

There are many other responses that provide insight into being an effective lawyer, and I found the responses to be simultaneously insightful and comforting. As a member of a much maligned profession, we all have had experiences that may support Shakespeare’s call to rid the world of lawyers (I am tempering his sentiment a bit!), and yet these responses showcase a different view of the effective lawyer.

If I have sufficiently piqued your curiosity, I invite you to take a look at the “map”. Simply paste this link into your Browser and enjoy.

Until next time . . . Joanne Lipo Zovic




This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Melissa Greipp

    Joanne, these results are especially interesting and illuminating in that you sampled a diverse group of lawyers.

    Fortunately, in addition to their course work, law students have many opportunities to practice these five essential skills, including trial advocacy, moot court, negotation and client skills competitions, law review, and internships.

    These activities provide students with valuable opportunities to test out not only areas of the law in which they may like to practice, but also to try out the skills that best suit them.

  2. Virisila Qasevakatini

    Joanne these is interesting and it is a great help to me.
    As a law student, I have many opportunities to practice these five skills of becoming a successful lawyer.

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