As a litigator, I have spent most of my maiden years in practice working in the trenches: researching legal issues, developing facts, and writing memos and briefs. I have seen a few courtrooms and participated in some adversarial calls, but I have rarely been the center of attention. All of this time in a support role, however, has allowed me to see what works for different lawyers and, thus, what might work for me. Whatever your practice, picking and choosing from the varied styles of others can inspire your professional development.
Shortly after I began at my firm, I was placed on a large case involving several other attorneys. Among them was a senior lawyer who managed a key aspect of the case. His approach was very measured, always advancing the strongest facts and legal authorities in a meticulous manner; but, rarely doing much in the way of what seemed like argument. I recall being concerned about his effectiveness: “Isn’t it this guy’s job to be a zealous advocate?” When the judge’s decision in the case came, however, it was readily apparent that this lawyer had done a brilliant job. His advocacy had fit his thoughtful, measured personality, and he had convinced the judge to approach that aspect of the case in the same way. At that point, I fully realized what I had begun to gather already: What makes a person a good lawyer often depends on the person.
Fundamentally, a lawyer’s style must reflect his or her personality. Although our profession tends to attract certain personality types, you can find extremely successful lawyers of all sorts. Indeed, I have worked with lawyers who run the gamut from slightly introverted to very outgoing and from skeptical to vocal advocate.
The good lawyers I know play to their strengths. Do you have a quiet personality, with your thinking driven by your logical analysis of the case? Focus on that analysis in a measured way, while keeping your bravado to a minimum. Do you easily become passionate about the actions of the opposing party or the tactics of opposing counsel? Channel that passion to tell a compelling story to the judge or jury. Faux outrage does not play well, and attacking the integrity of opposing counsel will only cause the judge to sour on you if you fail to draw blood.
At the same time, different personal styles work better or worse depending on the situation and with different judges, opposing counsel, or colleagues. Thus, if you have the luxury of working on a team of lawyers, the division of responsibility is paramount. Early in your career, you may not have as much choice about whom you work with or the division of labor. Take this as an opportunity to view how more senior lawyers divide the workload and understand why. This is a chance to start thinking about your role as a lawyer in larger matters. It is also a chance to work on your skills as an attorney. You can learn from more senior lawyers not only from what they do well, but also from where they’re lacking. If your personal style is different from theirs, you can use your strengths to fill a need while learning how to improve your skills in your weaker areas.
The same lessons can be applied to almost any practice area. Whatever your role on a particular project, you may have the opportunity to watch other attorneys negotiating deals and interacting with clients. Different attorneys will approach these tasks in varied ways. Some may prefer a more confrontational approach, seeking to hammer out the difficult issues up front, while others will focus on the positive and on common ground. Circumstances undoubtedly play a large role, but enough wiggle room and judgment calls exist for different lawyers to reasonably take different tacks.
Of course, none of this is an excuse to avoid first-hand development of your skills and becoming more multi-dimensional. It always makes sense to work toward greater comfort with speaking, on-your-feet thinking, and other aspects of good advocacy and counseling. But, lawyers perform best when they are authentic. Your personal style as a lawyer starts with your personality.