In law school, we are taught legal rules and principles. We study hard, and we judge ourselves by how well we are able to have academic conversations about the law. We enter the legal profession thinking we know more than we actually do, and we soon come to realize that we know very little about being a successful lawyer. Instead of arriving at our destination as we envisioned, we find we have merely qualified to enter the race and take our spot at the starting line.
As I approach my seventh year of practice, I often question my progress and think about what I have learned. I have had great mentors who understand that to become a lawyer, you have to start lawyering. You have to step outside of your comfort zone and make mistakes and learn from them. You must always keep in mind that who you are and how you act as a lawyer will define your success, and ultimately your satisfaction with practicing law. As I have observed other lawyers, I have come to the conclusion that there are three basic traits that all successful and well-respected lawyers share.
Be Tough but Always Be Fair
First, to gain respect from other lawyers and your clients, you must be tough yet always fair and reasonable. Too many lawyers believe that effective advocacy means fighting every step of the way. Such a mindset makes matters acrimonious and is a disservice to your clients and your development as a lawyer. You must wisely pick the battles that need to be fought and focus your efforts on the matters that advance reasonable goals for your clients. Do not be afraid to compromise. This is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of effective advocacy. Do not be afraid to communicate with your opposing counsel candidly about the case, as long as you do not reveal confidential information about your clients. This will go a long way in establishing trust and respect. Try to be accommodating with requests for extensions of time, as there will be many occasions where you will need the same.
Also, do not be afraid to have tough conversations with your clients, as this is crucial to managing client expectations. Your clients have come to you with a problem and expect you to help them resolve the issue reasonably and cost-effectively. You owe it to your clients to be objective and to find ways to resolve the matter without unnecessarily incurring substantial legal bills.
Leave a Good Impression
Second, treat other lawyers with respect. Do not talk down to or underestimate your opposing counsel. No matter the caliber or experience level, you will find it surprising how insightful and smart other attorneys can be. Do not be afraid to compliment them when they make good points or perform well. Everyone appreciates it when someone else says good things about them, and this will go a long way in developing respect.
Other lawyers tend to be a large source of referral business. The good impressions you leave might lead to the referral of a big or important case. If you do receive referrals, make sure you let the referring attorney know how appreciative you are. Also, keep in mind that you never know where your career path will lead you. Your opposing counsel may be your future partner or employer. The relationships you develop will open up future opportunities and make you more marketable.
Never Stop Learning
Third, remember that it is called the “practice of law” for a reason. No one enters the practice as a great lawyer. One of the greatest opportunities to improve our skills is to observe more experienced attorneys. You will gain invaluable experience by observing how other lawyers ask questions during depositions or witness examinations, how they communicate and negotiate with their opposing counsel, how they argue and reason with judges, how they evaluate a legal issue, and how they communicate with their clients. You will also learn what is not effective and what not to do.
You continually strive to expand your knowledge base by reading everything you can and by attending continuing education courses. Some of the attorneys with whom I am most impressed have a vast and in-depth understanding of many different areas of the law, as well as general, everyday life. Use events or experiences in your everyday personal life as an opportunity to understand how society operates. For instance, when you buy your first house, take the time to research and fully understand how things are done and why. When getting ready to file your taxes, learn as much as you can about deductions and credits. The knowledge you gain from these experiences will help you understand how to find practical solutions for your clients. You will be surprised at how much your everyday personal experiences will make you a better lawyer and advisor.
Although pedigree may be important to obtaining your first legal job, after a couple of years this is largely irrelevant. What is important to your continued success and professional development is what type of lawyer you are.