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Soft skills are what separates us from the machines.

In a world where increased advances in technology have people worried about their jobs, one method to combat the rise of the machines is to focus on those inalienably human traits which separate warm bodies from cold computing capability.

In the legal profession, where the rise of artificial intelligence is already taking over many rote tasks previously done by junior lawyers or interns, the key differentiator between robotic advice and people could come down to ‘soft skills’. This begs the question of whether law graduates are leaving New Zealand universities with the skills they will need to succeed in the workplace of tomorrow.

That’s according to McLeod Duminy Legal Careers director Kirsty Spears.

“There is plenty of buzz in the media around the potential for AI to replace lawyers,” she says. “But the areas where AI will struggle to compete include empathy, understanding, flexibility and the ability to build, maintain and appreciate relationships.”

A February, 2017 CNBC article explains why law could be the next profession to be replaced by computers; it is far from the only such piece.

“And how do lawyers complement technology rather than fear it? How do they keep up with ever more demanding clients and manage expectations? How do you take the step from lawyer to trusted advisor? All those questions could be answered with soft skills,” says Spears.

Her views are confirmed in several legal publications, including Above the Law which, in a recent article, explained why Soft Skills Still Matter for Attorneys. Author Michael McDonald writes, ‘The role of an attorney is fundamentally that of an advisor… As advisors, attorneys need the ability to connect with the client and inspire confidence.

Be that as it may, soft skills do not appear to be overtly appreciated by hiring firms – at least not in terms of the briefs they provide to recruiters, she continues. “We rarely get asked to find specific soft skills, beyond the rather vague ‘the right fit’. The briefs are always focussed on level of post-qualification experience, clients, types of deals or matters and jurisdictions a candidate has experience with. Right now, academic performance is heavily weighted, with hiring firms very interested in grades, even for senior level lawyers.”

She notes that in the 21st century soft skills go beyond the usual range of interpersonal skills, and include tech savvy, cultural awareness, project management abilities, and critical thinking. “Certainly, soft skills are important to be successful in the long term in the legal professions, as it is in many other vocations. Technical legal skills alone are not enough; advisors need to understand, connect and inspire trust and confidence among and between clients, colleagues and management.”

Spears says legal training does appear to be lacking in some key areas. “Emotional intelligence and human judgement are the things that robots will find hardest to replicate. And that’s reflected in what junior candidates tell me when I ask what has surprised them in their first couple of years in the workplace.”

They consistently mention the realities of dealing with clients and the need to understand that a client needs someone to distinguish the correct legal answer from the commercially or emotionally right answer for the client.“ Junior lawyers aren’t prepared for this very human aspect of the work, something that more experienced lawyers know is the reality.”

Spears says many law firms encourage ongoing training in these softer skills, but it may be incumbent upon the Universities to consider if, and how, they could address this in preparing young lawyers for the modern workplace.

“As the workplace of tomorrow continues to emerge, and with AI it might be a very different one, it will be essential for lawyers to focus on their human advantages.”