Lawyers – what’s the one key skill your clients rate highly?

Published: 20 Sep 2019

Kiser* summarised in a comprehensive review of lawyer client studies that clients rate ‘Attentive Listening Skills’ as a top competency. ‘Ongoing Communication’ ranked highly too. Conversely lawyers ranked ‘Legal Expertise’, ‘Honouring Client Confidentiality’ and ‘Punctuality’ the most important.

Lawyers don’t rate listening

‘Listening Skills’ were ranked all the way down at 11 by lawyers, with ‘Ongoing Communication’ even further down the list.

·         Can superior legal expertise on its own make you stand out?

·         How often does your client need that superior level of knowledge?

·         How often will an average level of legal knowledge be enough to conduct a transaction successfully?

·        What will make a client say you are a great lawyer and recommend you?

If you look at the feedback you and your colleagues receive, do they talk about your technical superiority in your field or is the majority of feedback around really understanding what they need, being responsive and keeping them updated along the way (so they felt safe and supported!).

These are not technical skills, these are interpersonal skills! But as Kiser’s and others’ research shows, lawyers underestimate these aspects at their peril.

Lawyers overestimate their interpersonal skills

A successful career for a lawyer requires you to not only provide great services to clients, you will need to be good at business development, get on well with colleagues, develop your team members and navigate the political landscape of the firm you are part of.

When interpersonal skills are so important for a successful lawyer career, it is unfortunate that the core training and competencies taught rarely include how to interact and have quality conversations with clients and colleagues.

The problem can be further exacerbated by something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. This refers to our propensity to inaccurately estimate our own skill levels. Non-experts tend to over-estimate their own abilities while experts under-estimate theirs. A real expert tends to think that there is so much more still to learn about their subject, so they go on an eternal quest to improve their technical specialist skills.

The expert lawyer therefore may not recognise that their legal knowledge and skills are sufficient already for their role, so other aspects should be their focus, such as their interpersonal skills (where they may in fact have over-inflated opinions about their own competencies!).

This creates a perfect storm where not only do lawyers not recognise the importance to their clients of listening and interpersonal skills but they also overestimate their own abilities in these areas.

Interpersonal skills for lawyers

The good news is that we are increasingly training lawyers and other professional experts, such as accountants, financial advisers and consultants, in interpersonal skills and the art of coaching and mentoring. The purpose might be to become a better manager and being able to develop team members’ performance.

However, increasingly we help lawyers develop their interpersonal skills in order to have better quality conversations with their clients. Through developing their listening and questioning skills they understand their clients’ needs better, improve their legal advice while at the same time establish a stronger rapport and build long-term client relationships.

The feedback we get is that clients’ reactions are overwhelmingly positive, reinforcing the benefits of developing new listening and communication skills. Clients feel that the advice they receive is more personal to their situation and that they have been fully listened to and understood. Exactly the areas they rate highly.

See more about our Interpersonal Skills for Lawyers course ( or the 1-day course we are running for the Law Society called Effective Communication with Colleagues and clients ( You are also welcome to contact me on

*Kiser, R (2017): Soft Skills for the Effective Lawyer: Cambridge University Press

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