Why Your Transferable Skills As A Lawyer Aren’t As Important As You Think

transferable skills

And why your CV isn’t doing you any favours in landing a new career

When I speak with lawyers who are contemplating a career change, many of them tell me they have been searching for something that will suit the skills they have developed through studying and practising as a lawyer.

They are also searching Google for things like “what transferrable skills do lawyers have?”.

They think that their “transferable skills” will guide them seamlessly into a new career where everything is sweetness and light.

And then I tell them they are wrong!

The trouble is that many of us have been “brainwashed” into a kind of recruitment groupthink that says people get jobs and make career changes by being able to clearly identify their transferrable skills and then showing them off during the recruitment process.

This thinking tends to make people focus too heavily on their so-called transferable skills and forget that these are just one small part of what makes us attractive to a new employer.

As lawyers, I wonder if we tend to think like this as a way of justifying all the time and money we have spent training and then developing specialisms?

Perhaps there’s also an element of fear here, too.

What if we’re only actually really qualified to be a lawyer?

What if our skills are too specialist and not actually that transferable to other careers?

Whatever the reason for thinking like this, it’s time to take a step back and realise that you are far more than a defined set of skills.

The skills you bring to the table are just one aspect of the whole “human package” that you can offer.

Everyone loves a list

Or so we think.

In reality, a lovely long list of skills does very little to excite a potential employer.

There’s no wonder we tend to get hung up on transferable skills – even the law schools use them as a marketing tool!

Here’s an extract from a brochure from one of the leading providers of legal education in the UK at the moment:

“Our law degree gives you more than an understanding of what it takes to be a lawyer. It’s packed with the types of transferable skills that make a law graduate worth their weight in gold.

We’re not just talking about any transferable skills either; we’re talking about highly desirable transferable skills that will place you at the top of most employers’ wish lists, both in and outside the legal sector.”

So you will see, even at the start of your legal career, you’ve had the idea planted that you will learn “valuable transferable skills”.

But as an employer, I’m rarely going to be choosing my ideal candidate based on their (self-penned) skillsets.

I’m going to be taking a much more holistic view of what the ideal candidate can bring to my business.

What excites recruiters and employers is an interesting career narrative.

That’s why you need to find and tell compelling stories from your work or life experiences that can show a much richer picture of who you are and the benefits you can bring to the role.

It’s these stories that contextualise your skills in a way that’s much more relevant to the recruiter (or employer, potential investor or business partner) in front of you.

Break with tradition

The traditional recruitment routes of job ads, recruitment agents, and sending out CV’s and cover letters are quite limited and rather two-dimensional.

They can tend to lead to organisations recruiting the same type of people with the same types of background and experiences.

As a career changer, it’s advisable to explore slightly less traditional routes. 

One of those is to find ways to have real in-person conversations with other human beings rather than trying to make first impressions in writing.

The power of this more personal approach is that it lets others feel how they connect with you, and it allows you to showcase your energy, your passion, your interests, capabilities and motivations.

More than they would ever get from a CV.

CV’s tend to either focus on skills the candidates believe they have (or believe the recruiter wants) without actually evidencing them, or they do evidence them, just very poorly and at length in multi-page CVs and covering letters.

Skills get mentioned at such a headline level in both of these instances that they are effectively meaningless as an indicator of your actual talents.

Take a classic transferable skill that career-changing lawyers like to mention on CVs or application forms: “strong communication skills”.

Well, that tells me next to nothing about what you are going to bring to my organisation.

However, if you tell me you’re accomplished at presenting to potential high-value new clients and have a track record of bringing in tens of thousands of new business every year, then suddenly I’m very interested.

Employers love to hear about how you used your skills – what the problem was you overcame, what the outcome was, how you turned things around and what you achieved.

These stories put your skills into context, and are also likely to evidence lots of other skills as well as personality traits, values and interests.

This is how you build a picture of what you’re all about – because you’re much more than just a list of skills.

You can’t always get what you want

Another thing that lawyers can struggle with is the assumption that for every job ad with a list of required skills they must meet all of the criteria or there’s no point in applying.

For many employers, this is a bit of a “wish list” and they aren’t expecting to find someone who can tick off all the skills and requirements AND who has the right personality and cultural fit.

(I’ll add the caveat that there are some professions, particularly in the public sector, where you must meet the person specification before you can even be considered for an interview. However, even in these cases, the attributes are often split into “essential” and “desirable”.)

It’s far more important that you show that you can meet a good number of the requirements, demonstrate the ability to be able to acquire the rest on the job, but that you have absolutely the right personal qualities for both the role and the organisation you’re hoping to work for.

Most employers are looking for the right person for the job, and that’s very much a 3D view of the candidates.

Skills are important, yes, but personality plays a much bigger role than many people realise.

Remember, CVs are two dimensional – figuratively and literally!

Most employers facing a shortlist of candidates after interviews will pick the person they liked the best and who they feel will have the most impact over the person who solely ticked all the skills boxes.

Your next steps

So, your focus now is not to get fixated on whether you have the transferable skills you think you need but to identify roles where you know you can do the job.

Then you need to do whatever you can to have an actual conversation with someone about it.

If you find that you are unable to get past that first hurdle and have those conversations then I suggest you need to step away from the traditional recruitment routes.

Start having your own conversations with people in the areas you are interested in until you connect with someone and opportunities start to come your way.

This is the best way to showcase yourself as a rounded person, and not just another CV on a pile in someone’s in-tray.

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Matt Oliver

Matt is the founder of Law Career Plus and a former in-house lawyer (Sky Sports, London & Foxtel, Sydney). With over 12 years of experience as a career consultant & executive coach, he supports lawyers with their career development & career transitions. He does this through this website, a regular email newsletter and his one to one lawyer career coaching.

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