Lawyers Need Soft Skills: A Book Review

Author Randy Kiser with his book

In a review of my book, Structured Negotiation, A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits, Chicago mediator Tom Valenti wrote “If you take away nothing from this book you will no doubt benefit from Chapter 16 which is invaluable.”  (Chapter 16 is titled “Cultivate the Structured Negotiation Mindset.”) 

I have now discovered Soft Skills for the Effective Lawyer – a book that is like my Chapter 16 on steroids plus so much more. It should be mandatory reading for every lawyer, law student, law professor, and CLE provider.

It was an honor to meet the book’s author, Randall Kiser, in a downtown Berkeley coffee shop recently, where the picture illustrating this post was taken.

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What Are Lawyering Soft Skills?

Kiser starts his book with a mountain of studies demonstrating what clients really want from lawyers; what lawyers want from colleagues; what judges value; and what traits and skills actually make lawyers successful. (Hint: it’s not getting good grades in law school.)

He identifies the top soft skills (broken down and explored later in the book) as

  • self awareness
  • self-development
  • social proficiency
  • leadership
  • wisdom
  • professionalism

These are to be compared to technical skills that are the focus of too much law school education: writing, legal analysis, oral advocacy, research.  Kiser isn’t saying these hard skills aren’t important — it’s just that they are only half the story.  A half too often left out of the profession.

Kiser spends the rest of the book teasing out the elements (the other skills) of these overarching six skills.  Best yet, for each soft skill, Kiser offers hard evidence that the skill matters and tips and tools for improving it. For example, he offers seven techniques to enhance creativity and six steps to improve perceptiveness (Number one is one I need — “Avoid multitasking.”)

Creativity. Courage. Resilience. Patience. Gratitude. Listening skills. Civility. These are just a few examples of the soft skills explored in this important book.  Skills that we know matter in relationships and life; Kiser shows us how and why they matter in law too.

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Soft Skills and Structured Negotiation 

The first chapter that I wrote of Structured Negotiation, A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits was Chapter 16,  “Cultivate the Structured Negotiation Mindset.”

By the end of the many-year writing process, I understood why I wrote this chapter first.  It was because none of the other elements of the Structured Negotiation process — from writing a convincing opening letter to sharing experts to exchanging information without discovery — are possible without an attitude of collaboration that I call the Structured Negotiation mindset.

But even though I wrote it first, the chapter is last in the published book.  I was concerned that lawyers would not get past chapter one of a book that called for active patience, grounded optimism, trust, empathy, avoiding negative assumptions, and plain old friendliness. 

Had I been able to read Kiser’s book before writing mine (his was published after) I would have had more confidence.

I would have known that there is a whole field of law and psychology producing studies supporting the “soft skills” that Structured Negotiation practitioners have relied on for two decades. And I can assure you the phrase “soft skills” would have been sprinkled throughout the book!

Here are just a few of the overlaps I found between Kiser’s soft skills analyses and my (and others’) experience with Structured Negotiation

    • Kiser explains how and why storytelling is an important element of the “social proficiency” soft skill.  In talking about the value to clients of informal information sharing used in Structured Negotiation over rigid and role-limiting depositions, I write that “…in Structured Negotiation there is room for the story.”
    • The Soft Skills book talks about the value of foresight as a quality of the soft skill of wisdom.  I start my section on patience with a favorite quote from Turkish Sufi Master Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi: “Patience does not mean to passively endure. It means to be farsighted enough to trust the end result of a process.”
    • Kiser writes a lot about trust and the value of being in a “high trust environment.”  The collaborative space created by Structured Negotiation is a high trust environment. I write about trust in my book because without trust it would be impossible to resolve complex claims without the complex procedural rules that accompany a conflict-bases system like litigation.
    • Part of the soft skill of of self-development included in Kiser’s book is optimism.  He has a section on the trait in his book, and so do I. (We also both have sections on empathy, equanimity, and the value of mindfulness.) I use the term “grounded optimism” to capture the idea that optimism can’t be unfounded:

      Grounded optimism is the belief that something will work based on experience of why and how it has worked in the past. In Structured Negotiation, optimism is grounded in the activities that have contributed to past successes: writing an opening letter that avoids conflict-heavy language, executing the ground rules document, and sharing expertise to focus on solution. Being optimistic about the potential outcome of a negotiation keeps me focused on the tasks needed to get there.Structured Negotiation, A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits, p. 185

    • Another skill embedded in the social proficiency soft skill is described by Kiser as “don’t assume.” So too is “avoiding negative assumptions” a core principle of the Structured Negotiation mindset. A conflict heavy system depends on parties and lawyers making negative assumptions about each other’s motivations. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when those assumptions are set aside.

    The list of overlaps between Randall Kiser’s Soft Skills book and Structured Negotiation, A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits goes on. I now know that I’ve been relying on soft skills for more than two decades while representing clients and working with some of the largest organizations in the United States. And my negotiating partners have relied on them too. As I write in the book, an atmosphere of problem solving encourages cooperation, demands that everyone around the table exercise the skills of relationship building, not the skills that produce a victor in a conflict.

    Randall Kiser is a former practicing lawyer who now runs a consulting company that teaches lawyers and law firms to make good decisions.  I believe that when more lawyers recognize the value of soft skills, more will recognize their ability to make the decisions needed to resolve problems with less cost and conflict. And that they will realize that Structured Negotiation is a workable tool for the lawyer’s tool box.


    Find Soft Skills for the Effective Lawyer on Amazon in print and kindle formats.

    Structured Negotiation, A Winning Alternative to Lawsuits, is also on Amazon in both print and Kindle formats, and available through the publisher in both a print and ePub version. Use code LFLEGAL20 for a 20% discount when the book is purchased from the publisher, the American Bar Association.

    For readers with print disabilities the Structured Negotiation book is available from Bookshare and the National Library Service BARD program.

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