Report from the 2020 International Bar Leaders’ Symposium: Essential Skills for the Modern Lawyer

The modern lawyer needs a plethora of skills, but emotional intelligence is vital

This year’s International Bar Leaders’ Symposium, hosted by the German Bar Association, focussed on “The Law Firm as a Business Model in the 21st Century”. The first part of the symposium addressed the lawyer as a person, whilst the second part examined new business models. The impact of the pandemic on the practice of law was a prevalent theme of the symposium and the current pandemic was regarded as a catalyst for the growing significance of adaptability and the attainment of new skills for the modern lawyer. 

I had the privilege of chairing the panel on “Essential Skills for the Modern Lawyer”. The panel was very diverse and comprised of extremely experienced lawyers, which led to a lively discussion on the skills the modern lawyer should possess. Our panel members were Dr. Clarissa Freundorfer (General Counsel for Deutsche Bahn Cargo AG), Gloria Sánchez Soriano (Group Vice President and Head of Legal for Technology and Legal Transformation at Santander), Dr. Oliver Islam (Senior Associate in the Litigation, Arbitration and ADR practice group at Noerr LLP), Christiane Féral-Schuhl (President of the Conseil National des Barreaux, France) and Vivene Salmon (President of the Canadian Bar Association).

Spurred on by the prospect of a blank piece of paper and an opportunity to demonstrate our creativity, we created an enviable list of essential skills, attributes and competencies that, in our view, the modern lawyer should possess. Uniquely, we were able to draw on ideas from a wide variety of legal systems (Germany, Spain, France, Canada and England & Wales) as well as legal experience (in-house counsel, private practice, bar association and bar council leaders) resulting in a comprehensive, but therefore rather long list of “essential” skills. From our discussion, three key points really resonated with me:


1. The modern lawyer needs a “change mindset”: We all agreed that the modern lawyer needs to be innovative, be open to design-thinking, be able to manage complexity, be able to not only use technology but also to know how to leverage technology. These skills are needed because client needs have changed. The challenges faced by clients originate from a more complex, digital world, and the way in which legal advice is delivered to clients is paramount. As advocated by Christiane Féral-Schuhl and Gloria Sánchez Soriano, this means being able to streamline legal reasoning in order to provide the client with a user-friendly digital product. It means, for example, being open to offering services, such as platforms to facilitate collaboration on complex, data-intensive transactions, further developing online Alternative Dispute Resolution services, legal data analytics, or even offering advice on the effectiveness of a legal technology tool. In order to be able to provide these additional services, the modern lawyer cannot stick his or her head in the sand – he or she needs an open or “change” mindset to leverage the intersection between technology, business and the law. Clarissa Freundorfer gave an example of how, at DB Cargo, she takes the view that people are always learning: During the initial stages of the pandemic, lawyers with a “change” mindset were quickly able to move to an entirely digital system with virtually no preparatory measures.


2. People matter: The modern lawyer has a tremendous number of technological and management tools at his or her fingertips, all designed to make his or her job easier. As Gloria Sánchez Soriano pointed out, this luxury should afford us the time to reflect on the way in which we deliver services and to ask ourselves if we have delivered what the client wants. To accomplish this, we must fulfil our client’s purpose not only with knowledge of the law, but also with creativity and empathy. During his opening keynote speech, Simon Davis, (President of the Law Society of England & Wales) also reminded us that in these turbulent times, when new skills and strategies are required from lawyers and law firms, one key aspect of the “business of law” remains constant: Clients need a lawyer to get them out of trouble or prevent them from getting into trouble. Above all, clients need someone who will listen to them. Furthermore, lawyers need to tune into the needs of their own teams. As Oliver Islam highlighted, clients, teams and law firms are increasing in size and diversity. In this sense, diversity includes many factors: professional background, generation, gender, social background, race, religion, language and cultural background. This means that collaboration becomes increasingly important, and team leaders need to strategically adapt their team culture in order to ensure that each member feels included and appreciated.


3. Emotional intelligence is becoming a vital skill: Emotions can be considered to be in conflict with the world view of how lawyers should behave: cool, calm, collected, professional. In Ronda Muir’s recent book “Beyond Smart: Lawyering with Emotional Intelligence” (2017), she asserts that lawyers are “emotionally underdeveloped”. Indeed, this echoes the findings of Larry Richard in his renowned study from 2002,“Managing Lawyers is like Herding Cats”, in which he found that lawyers in the USA were significantly less resilient than the general public. However, emotional intelligence and resilience are key skills for lawyers, and are quickly gaining more prominence. As Vivene Salmon explained, the Canadian Bar Association is taking the mental health of its lawyers very seriously and has rolled out a support and training program to help lawyers acquire these essential skills. A lawyer who is able to understand and manage his or her emotions, is more adaptable and open to change – a significant asset in today’s climate. As a result, the Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession is currently undertaking research into the emotional strategies top lawyers are using during the pandemic to successfully lead their teams. The findings will be presented at this year’s virtual Autumn Conference on 18th and 19th November.  


Whilst the result of our panel discussion was to create a plethora of skills that the modern lawyer simply must possess, we need to be reminded that the modern lawyer does not have to be a superhero. Instead, and as highlighted by Simon Davis, the key challenge going forward will be to decide “which part of the service requires me to know my client, and which not?” In other words, efficiency lies in accurately allocating the task according to the appropriate skill set. For example, how should work be divided up between a transaction lawyer and a corporate lawyer? Deciding who does what in a way which adds value for the client is a complex, but critical, decision.

Let me conclude by reflecting on what it means to be “a lawyer” in 2020. The Oxford dictionary definition of lawyer is “a person who practises or studies law”. The problem is that what it means to “practise” law is changing. Whilst the key legal skills that a lawyer needed 20 or 30 years ago, are still needed today, the modern lawyer needs additional “non-legal” skills. These additional skills are driven by digitalisation, client needs, changes to the legal marketplace, changes to a lawyer’s working environment and external influences, such as regulation and the current pandemic. Given the very real and current need for lawyers to be adaptable, it is my view that from the long list of skills that emerged from the panel discussion, the essential skill for the modern lawyer is the highly virtuous, adaptable and reflective use of his or her emotional skills. By leveraging his or her emotional intelligence, the modern lawyer will not only be more adept at managing his or her team, but also more skilled at meeting his or her client’s needs.


Emma Ziercke, Senior Research Associate, Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession


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Emma Ziercke, Senior Research Associate, Bucerius Center on the Legal Profession