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Self-confidence – a key legal skill

Self-confidence – a key legal skill

Matthew Dow


Improving self-confidence can drastically change the fortunes of an aspiring lawyer. For some candidates, a conscious effort to enhance their outward demeanour can be crucial in securing their dream role. Trainees are regularly advised that possessing greater conviction in their own abilities is vital to their professional development.

Undeniably, an applicant’s charm, charisma and confidence play an important role in entry-level recruitment.

In situations like interviews, group assessments and vacation schemes, the opportunity to demonstrate your potential may be time limited. Therefore, having a confident, professional approach will help you to be remembered by the firm’s graduate recruitment team. This natural presence can make you stand out among the other applicants.

While there is nothing wrong with volunteering to time record or take notes, these tasks can make it challenging to create an extraordinary impression.

Likewise, perhaps more than we think, successful applications are defined by a few chance encounters. For instance, open days and casual interactions provide opportunities for you to really click with someone, often through discussing an unrelated mutual interest close to their heart.

With these limited opportunities to impress, having a confident attitude and an active ‘go-get them’ mentality when introducing yourself to strangers can make the difference. For example, typical feedback given to unsuccessful candidates on vacation schemes suggests that they seemed intimidated by the office environment, often relying too much on email correspondence due to a perceived fear of approaching senior colleagues.

By contrast, a candidate who approaches the partner’s office cocoon and takes the time to acknowledge everyone (of course, with the necessary self-awareness of when is the appropriate occasion) will be widely praised. To open the doors to a great legal career, you have to knock on them with confidence first.

How important is confidence?

A lawyer’s self-confidence is perhaps more important than their commercial awareness. After all, a solicitor will never be able to know every single legal issue without extensive research. Recently, black swan events such as Brexit and Trump’s election have caught many solicitors and their firms’ long-established precedents off guard. In the face of potential legislative uncertainty, lawyers still need to convince clients of their team’s competency. They must also persuade clients of their own personal ability to research unfamiliar practice area themes or legal topics. Confidence is essential to this portrayal of mastery of the unknown.

Barristers in construction, chancery or criminal law are extremely intelligent and well-researched individuals. Nonetheless, this erudite manner does not guarantee them a successful career.

For example, intelligence alone is unlikely to help them when a witness abruptly pivots position, a case lands on their desk mere minutes before the trial or missing documents suddenly become pertinent evidence. On such occasions, the barrister must remain composed in front of the judge. They must develop the ability to remain confident in their argument despite any adverse circumstances. They must trust their judgment. 

Ultimately, in order to prevail, they have no choice but to fake outward confidence; in the end, the barrister is the person the client is relying on. This is serious pressure and requires considerable self-belief to handle.

On the business development side, commercial awareness alone will not convince clients (possessing vastly more specialist knowledge) that you are the lawyer for the job. With many highly talented advocates to choose from, a lawyer has no choice but to back themselves. To secure clients, they must come across as assured and reliable.

As a junior lawyer during pupillage, you are constantly encouraged by clerks to push yourself. Going out of your comfort zone and having to embrace a steep learning curve is unavoidable. Showing that you can handle this stressful situation is a key aspect of the role and recruitment process.

Looking like a lawyer

The impact of confidence on the impression we convey to recruiters is best demonstrated to me by an actress I know who always gets cast to play the role of a stereotypical US corporate lawyer. Her legal knowledge is limited at best (mostly case law from scripts!) however she indisputably looks like a lawyer. Her secret is that she carries herself with a confidence that naturally makes her look very secure. She would never be considered out of place in a high-end law firm environment. Her voice is bold, and her body language suggests she is always in control of the situation. Considering that on vacation schemes especially, you are always being observed, coming across confidently in your interactions is important.

Before I get accused of suggesting that all lawyers need to be outgoing, immaculately coiffed and donning the pinstripe, please let me clarify: demonstrating this desired confidence to potential colleagues/clients can be subtle. It can be displayed through your work and conversations. 

For example, regular constructive feedback to trainees advises them to use the active voice in their drafting (eg, ‘the dog chased the ball’ rather than ‘the ball was chased by the dog’). The phrase naturally appears more certain and reliable. Additionally, trainees are reminded to avoid caveating their opinion too much and instead have faith in their solution for the client.

During a recent panel, a senior associate at a leading silver circle firm recalled the best bit of advice he ever received on this theme: being told by his supervisor to never apologise for his work. Having worked hard on the research, he should be proud of it. The lesson is not to focus on the unnoticed imperfections that can undermine your credibility.

These subtle actions are important because in a workplace, a confident disposition will be intuitively applied to other circumstances. This includes the perception of your work, management potential, leadership skills and, most importantly, your employability.

Why do I bring this theme up?

Unfortunately, self-confidence is a qualification rarely mentioned in law firm recruitment posters. Instead, advertisements tend to highlight the need for a fun, outgoing personality, and firms encourage applicants with an entrepreneurial, commercial spirit, typical of a potential future partner. That being said, how you carry yourself is an understated aspect of your assessment as a future lawyer and it must be considered a crucial area to improve on and demonstrate during any application cycle.