At the recent Pennsylvania Continuing Legal Education Board's Provider's Conference, held June 10, 2011 in Harrisburg, the keynote speaker was an engaging and informative Paul Gilbert, Chief Executive of LBC Wise Counsel. LBC Wise Counsel is a UK-based management and skills consultancy exclusively for lawyers. Paul's presentation, entitled "Soft Skills: Importance for Lawyers - Importance for CLE" was thought-provoking, focusing on a topic that has generated much discussion here in the US among those of us in the CLE industry. Should soft skills courses be approved for CLE credit? While this view may be controversial - I think no, and I'll tell you why.
I liked Paul's definion of soft skills - those involved in how we can relate to people and allow them to relate to us - communicating, influencing, engaging, managing expectations. These are skills critical for client development, building client loyalty, building a team.
Let me begin by saying that I think soft skills are important - even critical - skills for a lawyer (or any professional for that matter) to possess. And I'm not saying that attorneys shouldn't focus on developing these skills or that as providers we shouldn't be creating and presenting these programs. I just think that there is a difference between continuing legal education (CLE) and professional development.
Paul advocates for soft skills training being allowed for credit. That may come, in part, in coming from the CPD system for solicitors under which he is licensed. Solicitors are required to take several compulsory programs - "Client Care and Professional Standards" and "Financial and Business Skills" during their first full year of license, and a management course focusing on managing finance, firms, client relations, information, and people before the end of their third year. It also comes from the research and consultancy in which he's been involved at LBC Wise Counsel.
Why are soft skills important specifically for lawyers? Value to clients. Clients measure "good lawyers" based on effectiveness in communication, empathy, accessibiltity, etc. LBC Wise Counsel has done much work in identifying a perception gap between what is valued by clients and what is actually delivered by the attorney, who tends to focus on competence.
If this is what is valued by clients, then, shouldn't lawyers do more skills development in this area? If this is what is valued by clients, shouldn't these skills trainings be available for credit?
Most US CLE rules define programming for credit for courses whose primary objective is to "increase the professional legal competency of the attorney". LEGAL competency. Does knowing how to better relate to your clients improve your legal competency. No. Does it make you a better lawyer. Likely yes.
I've always had mixed feelings about mandatory CLE, which is somewhat difficult as I've chosen to spend my career in this industry. I understand setting minimum requirements to ensure continued competence. But professional development should be about more than that - it is to me. When I look at the hours I personally spend on professional development, I far exceed the minimum required by any state MCLE rule. So to say that all professional development should be given credit is unnecessary in my mind.
In discussing this post with a colleague, he brought up an intriguing notion: what if US states REQUIRED a soft skills program, much as those required to be completed by solicitors? I actually really like this idea as it continues to separate the concepts of legal education and soft skills, but also adds a needed focus on the acquisition of these skills by lawyers.
A lot to mull over. I welcome comments, discussion, opposition.