Soft skills, such as empathy, are ‘not optional’

Soft skills, such as empathy, are ‘not optional’

08 July 2021 By Jerome Doraisamy

Over the course of Jahan Kalantar’s legal career, being able to utilise soft skills is where he has seen the most benefit for clients and in his work.

Speaking recently on The Lawyers Weekly Show, Executive Legal partner and head of litigation Jahan Kalantar (pictured) told a story from two years ago where a client who had been charged with aggravated break and enter had come into his office around 2:00PM, on an afternoon where he was busy up until 7:00PM.

“Essentially, he had seen his former wife with a new lover, kicked the door down, and he’d gone in there and screamed all sorts of things. He was a larger, very sad and lugubrious-looking man. And as I was talking to him, something told me that there’s a lot going on in this guy’s life. I don’t know why, but it just felt like there was a crisis brewing, so I actually cancelled my diary and took him out for something to eat,” he recalled.

“I made sure he was okay, I called this family. About a year later he’s sentenced and he doesn’t get custody. And as we go to have a celebratory coffee, he says, ‘Man, I just wanted to say thank you. That day that I met you I was going to end it, that was what my plan was, but you were really nice to me and it helped me get through that day, and once I got through that day, I could get through the next day’.”

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Empathy, Mr Kalantar surmised, is “not optional”.

“I needed that five hours of babysitting a client like I needed a hole in the head, but he’s a human being first and it was very nice to be able to help someone. That’s why we do what we do. If you don’t like helping people, law is not the right job for you,” he submitted.

One of the difficulties with legal education in Australia, he mused, is that law is, too often, treated as a merely academic discipline. It is to some extent, he noted, but understanding the rule of law is just the beginning of a much larger process.

You are dealing in a high-stress environment, no matter what type of lawyer you are. Litigation, for example, is like performing surgery. Every single time you do a stitch there’s someone on the other side with a scalpel trying to cut it out. And you need to learn and understand – because such things are not innate – that development of resilience, persuasiveness and adaptability are not-negotiable. You need to learn that this is a skill that can be gained in the same way you learn to be in a situation to recognise promissory estoppel,” he said.

Having worked as a barrister and now a partner in a boutique firm, he understands that soft skills are just as important, if not more so, than an appreciation for the bare bones of legal practice.

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Mr Kalantar said that there are three soft skills that are “critical” for a lawyer to succeed.

“One is you must be resilient, you must be able to take life’s knocks and deal with them adequately and there are strategies obviously to develop that. I think the second is to be adaptable, to understand, and be able to move with the zeitgeists. And I think the third one is that you need to be persuasive. You need to be able to convince people to trust you, be it through speech, be it through writing, communicate at a high level,” he listed.

When asked how best lawyers could ensure they can develop those skills, he said that while the COVID-19 pandemic has “given us so many things to be upset about, there’s been some nuggets of gold that have emerged”.

“One of those is that technology has made it so much easier for us to communicate and so much easier for us to obtain information. The way that I perhaps learned in law school is very different to the way that students learn today. And I think that the rise of social media, I think the rise of short form content that has real value, some of these short form videos that I’ve seen on YouTube, that I’ve seen on Reddit, that I’ve seen on various sites have been so valuable to me,” he said.

“Carol Dweck from Stanford University I think really articulates this well: there’s two mindset types, fixed and growth. If youre a fixed mindset person, that means you believe you are what you are, theres not much you can do. And if you have a growth mindset, you believe you have some skills and some abilities which will grow if you focus on it. Just knowing that is really transformative.

“If somebody had taken me in year one in law school and said, ‘Hey, you can get better at these things’, I feel it would have transformed my experience substantially, because there I wrote off entire subjects like Equity and Trusts because I was just not wired to think that way. Now, there is no such thing as wired to think that way, and if somebody had taught me that, I very well might be in a different position and I mightve kept some doors open that otherwise were shut.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Jahan Kalantar, click below:

Soft skills, such as empathy, are ‘not optional’
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