Soft skills for tough barristers (Reflection, Self-Coaching, Change, EQ, Awareness, Goal-setting, Communications)

This article was published in the January 2023 edition of Counsel magazine. January 2023 | COUNSEL | The Magazine of the Bar of England and Wales ( Soft skills for tough barristers (Reflection, Self-Coaching, Change, EQ, Awareness, Goal-setting, Communications). 

The seasonal break allows time to step back and reflect on what you’ve achieved and where you’re heading. If your review suggests you need to develop your soft skills, it can be an uncomfortable prospect for a tough barrister as it involves more than knowledge-acquisition. In this article we look at the evidence on soft skills and some practical tips on improving yours now.

Reflection and self-coaching

Some sets provide coaching resources to help you undertake this reflection and course correction. Or it may be something you want to invest in for yourself. There are experienced coaches out there – some who specialise in working with barristers.

Adopt a coaching framework to help yourself – here’s John Whitmore’s GROW model:

  • What are my Goals?
    • What do I hope to achieve? And by when? How will I measure success?
    • Think beyond financial and profile goals. How do you want your practice to change? What types of clients and work do you want?
  • What is the current Reality?
    • What are my strengths and weaknesses?
    • How do my clients and colleagues perceive me?
    • What’s happening within my market? What are my competitors doing?
  • What are my Options?
    • What choices do I have? What are my priorities?
    • What are the different strategies I could adopt?
    • What innovative approaches could I adopt?
  • Do I really have the Will to change?
    • How much time can I devote to learning and changing?
    • Will I commit to change – regardless of how busy I become?

Change is a constant

Even if you haven’t sat down to contemplate your needs in a structured way you will have noticed the dizzying array of changes that are being foist onto you. The Covid pandemic forced everyone to acquire many technology skills at pace. And the relentless rate of change and heightened competition means that you have to constantly update your technical skills.

But what we also learned from the Pandemic was the importance of soft skills – how we manage ourselves and interact with others. We saw first-hand how a digital divide can cause problems in creating, maintaining and growing relationships.

Those who are new to the profession missed out on acquiring those skills while the world spent years in lockdown. I know this from many sources, including the calls I had from barristers seeking help with networking, prospecting and winning new work challenges.

The importance of soft skills?

I conducted research to support a book on “Soft skills for lawyers” which was published in 2020. Let me share some of the findings.

  • In 2007, in a report produced with Carnegie Mellon, Stanford Research Institute revealed that in industry and commerce generally, 75% of long-term job success depends on the mastery of soft skills and only 25% on technical skills.
  • Citing the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs, a 2018 Forbes article by Avil Beckford predicted the top 10 skills that would be demanded in 2020 as:
  1. complex problem-solving
  2. critical thinking
  3. creativity
  4. people management
  5. coordination with others
  6. emotional intelligence
  7. judgement and decision making
  8. service orientation
  9. negotiation
  10. cognitive flexibility
  • Also in 2018, a report by Bersin™ Deloitte noted that employers are as likely to select candidates for their adaptability, culture fit and growth potential as for in-demand technical skills. Employers such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft have highlighted the importance of learnability – curiosity and a thirst for knowledge – as a key indicator of career potential. A conclusion was “Jobs that rely on cognitive skills are now fair game for automation”
  • In Greg Orme’s 2019 book “The Human Edge – our superpowers in the digital economy” he argued that there are four distinctly human skills that will become increasingly important in protecting us from automation: Consciousness, Curiosity, Creativity and Collaboration. And on the dangers of being too specialist I would suggest you take at look at the 2020 book “Range – How generalists triumph in a specialized world” by David Epstein

I spent eight months researching soft skills for with solicitors and barristers and classified soft skills into the following groups:

  • Personal skills – e.g. Goal setting, making an impression and creativity
  • Communication – e.g. Non-Verbal Communication (NVC), active listening and storytelling
  • Building relationships – e.g. creating rapport and trust, navigating difference and diversity
  • Leadership – e.g. visioning, empowering, delegation, coaching and feedback
  • Business development – e.g. marketing, selling and relationship management

This year, I spent months working with Managing Partners’ Forum exploring the training needs of the leaders of professional services firms. From various published reports and interviews we identified the following:

  • Self-awareness, adaptability and emotional intelligence
  • Building vision and strategy
  • Leading change and transformation (especially culture)
  • Developing internal and external relationships
  • Management excellence (especially functional awareness such as finance, human resources)
  • Board behaviour
  • Digital transformation

The over-arching theme was the need to achieve consensus through collaboration – and this is in the soft skills space.

Top three soft skillsets for barristers

Maybe you are persuaded that you need to develop your soft skills – but where do you start?

Some larger sets will have HR professionals who can provide self-assessments and signpost you to learning resources – guides, books, online knowledge hubs, internal and external courses.

Here’s my view of the top three soft skillsets for barristers

1. Improve self-awareness (and emotional intelligence)

Emotional intelligence (EQ or EI) quotient is a technical term covering many soft skills.

  • Tested alongside 33 other important skills, EQ subsumes most of them, including time management, decision-making and communication
  • EQ accounts for 58% of performance in all types of jobs, and is the single biggest predictor and the strongest driver of leadership and personal excellence
  • Only 36% of people tested can accurately identify their emotions as they happen
  • Ninety per cent of high performers are also high in EQ – people with high EQs make more money

Emotional intelligence can be broken down:

  • Recognising our own emotions (Self-awareness)
    • Managing our own emotions (Self-control)
    • Recognising the emotions of others (Empathy)
    • Managing the emotions of others (Relationship management)

We all need to be self-aware. And know our style, strengths and weaknesses. And how well we adapt and how we function under stress. We also need to know how others perceive us – whether team members, subordinates, leaders, referrers or clients.

It was interesting that most lawyers and law firm HR professionals recognised the importance of emotional intelligence, but none – at that time – provided assessment tools or training interventions.

2. Enhance communication

In my research, there were many references to the ability of lawyers to communicate effectively with peers, team members and both technical and lay clients. These ranged from conversational and social skills to managing difficult conversations, networking, commercial conversations, persuasion, providing feedback and active listening.

Those who have strong EQ skills will naturally be better communicators. So there’s clearly a link between these soft skills.

But there are a host of other communication skills we need to develop. So much of our interactions rely on non-verbal communication (NVC). So a deep understanding of the impact of expressions, posture, gestures and even tone, volume and pace of speech is required.

Other communication skills include the ability to influence and persuade and this goes beyond simply presenting evidence that can be forensically analysed in Court. The ability to craft and share compelling and meaningful stories. To engage and enthral strangers in conversations at events.

On networking skills, I’ll draw your attention to a fabulous book written by a young corporate lawyer of Russian origin working in the City of London. Book review – Great networking by Alisa Grafton (

And the list goes on. To create a personal brand. To present ideas with impact – whether at a digital webinar or in front of 500 conference delegates.

We must be able adapt our communication style for culturally-diverse groups. This was mentioned by those barristers with overseas clients and referrers. But there are differences in communication styles between generations and in digital environments too. On the latter, there is fantastic advice in the 2022 book “Digital Body Language – How to build trust and connection no matter the distance” by Erica Dhawan. Book review: Digital Body Language – How to build trust by Erica Dhawan (

3. Be goal-focussed

You need goals for managing your time, career and practice development.

There’s skill in analysing and assessing the situation – both within internal and external environments. The ability to sift through overwhelming data. To properly assess appropriate and reliable information. And to set goals and break them down into bite-sized pieces – perhaps integrating them into a planning or work flow system.

But there’s also the skill required to keep those goals front of mind. To constantly check them against data and evidence to see if you are still on track. To know when it might be appropriate to revise or update those goals.

Kim Tasso is a psychologist and management consultant working in the professions. She is author of seven books including “Soft Skills for Lawyers”

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