When lawyers and judges deliver legal training internationally, the outcome of these assignments does not only derive from the legal and technical expertise provided. Success and impact are also a result of the ability of legal experts to understand their audience and adapt to the different legal, cultural and social environments that surround them. International legal experts should focus on the development of soft skills such as adaptability and communication to provide more effective training.
While the need for such skills may seem obvious, putting them into practice is challenging. This article draws on interviews with UK judges who deliver international legal training, but the lessons learned can apply to all legal experts undertaking international pro bono technical assistance. We intend this short article to prompt readers to consider how they can develop their soft skills and adapt to local contexts, and thereby improve their international legal technical assistance.
Understanding the context: a need to familiarise with the cultural and legal framework
When delivering international legal training, a full understanding of the cultural, political and social context of the country where training is delivered is essential. As noted by HHJ Andrew Hatton, currently Director of Training for Courts and Joint Dean of the Faculty of the Judicial College, when asked whether he faced any difficulties in understanding the legal context in his work in Sierra Leone, he explained how “there was a need to become aware of the judicial culture in Sierra Leone and the way African judges were trained. I really needed to make myself familiar with the judicial culture of the country and that took a lot of time and required a lot of reading on the subject”.
This can affect not only the impact of the training, but whether it is wanted in the first place. For example, in Rwanda government partners value UK expertise because of the country’s transformation from purely civil law to a merge between civil law and common law. The country’s development of a hybrid legal system means that UK expertise can strengthen its common law components (ROLE UK, 2016, p.10). However, for other countries the assumption that UK expertise is needed or desired may be questioned. In Kenya, for example, there could be resistance to the idea that UK legal support is needed; whilst the Kenyan legal system is based on English common law, home-grown expertise is already widespread (ROLE UK, 2016, p.10).
Soft skills: Essential to what extent?
Programmes such as Rule of Law Expertise UK (ROLE UK), seeking to build rule of law capacity in developing countries, strongly value an understanding of the context of an assignment. ROLE UK highlights that “it is important that the project should not be too focused upon rules of law and reform of legal institutions but is also people focused” (ROLE UK, 2016, p.10). Being ‘people focused’ requires not only legal expertise but a need to develop interpersonal skills, also known as soft skills, such as communication, adaptability and flexibility. Therefore, even when the ‘perfect fit’ candidate with the right expertise is found, without the right interpersonal skills this may be insufficient to guarantee a successful assignment. Even if trainers undertake a robust contextual analysis prior to being deployed on assignment, they may still miss the social and cultural dynamics on the ground. Actively using soft skills can help trainers learn these nuances.
The development of interpersonal skills starts prior to deployment and must be practiced in everyday legal practice. One UK judge revealed how challenging it can be to apply soft skills during court hearings. Communication needs to vary and change according to the individual concerned. This requires legal experts to develop a culture of being comfortable in jumping from one form of communication style to another. As one judge put it: “Communicating effectively and dealing with people is essential as it will help to run the training more smoothly. I believe the most relevant soft skill is for judges to effectively manage communication and people in advance”.
If soft skills are so important, to what extent are soft skills taught in judicial training for domestic courts and tribunals? Unfortunately, too little. One interviewee opined that soft skills in judicial training should be applied as part of substantive training:
“Judges are often taught and trained on what to read and how to keep up to date with the law. However, even though training judges on legal developments is important, it is still something that needs to be considered in the line of delivering soft skills as well. Sometimes there may not be enough time for a judge to keep updated on all the new legal developments and soft skills should instead be better taught”.
The way training is delivered is also important – training must be made more participatory, for example by presenting scenarios in small groups rather than lecturing. Moreover, opening the floor up for questions can provide stimulating conversation and debate. Active listening and setting aside preconceptions can lead to breakthroughs in rapport and discussion. As one judge put it: “one must be careful, adapt and not judge, in order to ensure that the training is fit for purpose to the needs of a country. This is often the most difficult part of the training”.
The challenges of addressing culture, customs and norms
Culture is an especially strong factor when considering how to engage participants from another country. Customs or norms can strongly influence issues such as judicial independence, gender equality in the legal profession and the development of decision-making skills. These need to be kept in mind when designing training curricula. The Albania 2018 Report from the European Commission, for example, points out the need to reinforce the independence, efficiency and accountability of judicial institutions. In Albania, judicial independence is strongly influenced by social factors such as family ties and national culture. Training in this context must both take account of the importance of national customs and also work towards the strengthening of judicial independence.
Legal experts should also promote gender sensitisation, regardless of the country in which they are delivering the training. Indeed, it is fundamental for international legal trainers to be mindful of patriarchal norms, given that women are still under-represented in the legal profession globally. A way for trainers to practice gender sensitisation would be to identify the specific local barriers that women face to enter the legal profession and help them to find ways to challenge them.
Cultural challenges and cultural differences can be a significant barrier to training effectiveness. However, legal experts should work to develop the soft skills necessary to mitigate this. As cultural and personal contexts change, these skills require flexibility and adaptation. As stated in the Declaration of Judicial Training Principles, judicial training should be multidisciplinary and include training in law, non-legal knowledge, skills, social context, values and ethics. Judicial training should instil a degree of open-mindedness and a “readiness to acknowledge and address their own preconceptions and prejudices to ensure that these do not taint the judicial process”. The take home message is that teaching must consist in “much more than just delivering information”.
These lessons apply, not just to judges, but to all legal professionals looking to work on pro bono technical assistance assignments. Delivering information in a culturally inappropriate or insensitive way can lead to negative impacts. Through sustained cultural awareness, and through developing soft skills, trainers can mitigate these and ensure that relationships are built, key messages are received, knowledge is shared, skills improved and hopefully applied to improve the Rule of Law.
Learning and Development Volunteer, A4ID
 HHJ Andrew Hatton was appointed in October 2013 by the UN Secretary General as one of the ten international judges on the roster of the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone.