How My Social Work Degree Prepared Me for Law Firms

Drew Sammeth, Client Educator, LexisNexis:

As happens for so many, I did not stay in the field for which I went to school. While not entirely intentional, my social work career was short as I fell into the corporate world through a ‘temp’ job between gigs. One thing led to another (as also happens for so many), and I landed a CRM job at a law firm administering InterAction. Now almost 12 years later, I’m still working the corporate life, and I’m still working in InterAction CRM. But while some degrees go unused in one’s actual chosen path, I’ve found that my social work degree prepared me surprisingly well for the law firm, and the many personalities that roam within.

When working toward a social work degree, you practice talking… a lot. You’re sitting down with classmates, clients, strangers, and you’re practicing over and over how to ask questions and engage with people. You specifically practice questions that bring out valuable information from people with different experiences, beliefs and openness. Everyone communicates differently, and social workers need to be able to make meaningful relationships through these interactions. So like any skill, we train to talk effectively, efficiently, and empathetically.

Social work students also practice listening… a lot. For every time you practice speaking, you also practice listening. Social workers are trained for active listening, which guides posture and eye contact that shows you are truly present with the speaker. You practice listening for triggers to avoid and themes that might move a conversation. As important as it is to speak clearly and effectively, speaking only works if you are an equally good listener; being engaged in the conversation, and mentally (or on paper) storing information to use later.

These primary social work skills, speaking and listening, have proven to be invaluable when working with very busy lawyers and legal professionals. There isn’t a lot of ‘free time’ in a law firm, and providing facts and details clearly, plus asking the right questions, the right way, at the right time, facilitates an efficient knowledge transfer that allows both parties to leave happy. I am now myself a full-time InterAction trainer, training law firm staff, and I am always recognizing my long-ago practice talks popping up in my professional life. There are people with whom you communicate easily and people that take some finesse… and the latter is when I usually see my training in action.

Marketing and database projects are often seen as chores in a ‘legal matter’ world, so how I relate projects to attorneys and assistants is important. I need to identify their needs and goals and be sure my projects are satisfying these needs. I ask open ended questions to get a group talking, or probing questions when I need to go deeper on a point. I get people talking because the more a person speaks, the more information I have to work with, even if it doesn’t seem relevant at the time. You never know when a casual mention can lead to something bigger, and it feels good to impress your colleagues by remembering something obscure they said weeks ago.

Finally, I am always present when interacting with others. I am showing that I’m listening and that I care what the speaker is talking about… using those active listening techniques. In real life, outside of work, it’s the exact same thing. Everybody wants to be heard, and it’s not hard to show someone I understand what they are saying. Being present is a huge part of building your relationships and strengthening rapport, and it’s simply essential to good work and personal relationships.

I’m no longer a social worker, but in the 11 years I’ve been in the legal world, I have not regretted my education. I attribute many of my successes to my time as a social worker and to the training I received. I suspect many of us find ourselves in similar spots… working in a field that is nothing like what we trained for. We can all just do our best to incorporate our expensive education into whatever we do. I think I was lucky. Music and art majors... best of luck!