What Makes a Good Lawyer?
It is human nature to want to be good at the things we do. We self-evaluate our aptitudes, performance, and results to answer competence questions about ourselves all the time in the smallest of ways. Am I a good singer? Am I good at sports? Am I a good student?
Lawyers ask these questions of themselves all the time, in practice, and prospective law students should, too. Consider the factors that make a good attorney, below. Ask yourself, “Does that describe me today?” or “What do I need to develop within myself?” to determine if you have what it takes to become a good lawyer.
What Does It Mean To Be a Good Lawyer?
The first step to answering the question ‘What makes a good lawyer” is to define what we are measuring. Of course, there will be a need to develop technical skills, learn case law, and how to practice law. To be an adequate lawyer, you need those skills. But that is why you are going to school. So what does it mean to be a good lawyer? Is it a measure of how much you earn or the number of cases won? Of course not. Hopefully, those are outcomes of being a good attorney, but not the way we measure quality. Success is always nice, but sometimes it isn’t in our control. But goodness is.
Let’s consider good lawyers as those that demonstrate the following behaviors and characteristics to conduct themselves professionally and earn the esteem of their clients and peers.
What Skills Do You Need to Be a Good Lawyer?
Each of the following four skills — and what it takes to develop them — will be essential for your toolkit if you want to be a good lawyer.
1. Communicate with Purpose
We’ve all seen the talented TV lawyers dazzle and surprise the courtroom with a flashy, emotional argument. There will be times when your in-court communication skills can set you apart as a great attorney, but more often, your everyday intention in communication will be what makes you a truly good lawyer.
The ability of a lawyer to listen is essential to being good at your job. To understand your cases, you must listen to your clients, opposing counsel, witnesses, and the court. You should listen to what is said as well as what is not said. Active listening will give you insight into motivations, openings for negotiation, and avenues for your approach. When you listen, you can find the thread that ties the details together.
It sounds like a basic expectation, but lawyers who consistently respond with timeliness to the court, counsel, and clients stand out as good lawyers. It will be easy with your schedule to be less proactive and responsive than you realize. Put practices in place to make sure you are known as a very responsive lawyer.
Be Compelling and Concise
You are going to spend the majority of your time communicating in one form or another. Whether it is legal writing or spoken word, you will need to formulate cogent messages that are persuasive and concise. Resist the temptation to include details that are not essential to the audience receiving your intended message. With too many details, it can be easy to lose the through-line of your message or for your message to seem disorganized and poorly structured.
2. Cultivate Your Passion and Drive
Setting off on the journey of becoming an attorney is not for the faint of heart. You need to be prepared for heavy workloads as a student and the challenges of balancing your personal and school life. And, once you are ready to practice, it doesn’t get easier. There are days in the life of a lawyer that can feel insurmountable. So what can you do to maintain your passion?
Remember Your Why
It is important to keep an eye on why you set out on this path to begin with. What was your vision or core motivation? It will be easy to lose sight of this in the daily work of lawyering. Returning to this vision can help to reset your focus and sustain you through the hardest days. If you are on your way to being a lawyer or haven’t done so before, take time to write down your Why. Putting it to paper can be a touchstone for the future. Keep it handy and refer to it often.
Have An Outlet
Having the ability to shift to some creative outlet outside of the law may be the single most important thing you can do to prevent burnout. Whatever it is, whether gardening, sports, or art, you will need a release valve if you are going to maintain your drive.
There will be days that your schedule is not your own. You will be pulled in many directions all at once. Eating well, staying active, and getting adequate rest are essential to your ability to maintain focus and be the lawyer you aspire to be.
3. Exercise Judgement
One of your most critically important skills is the ability to make judgment calls — both for yourself and for your clients. For example, as an attorney, sometimes your best decisions will be the cases you decided not to take. You will need to determine the merits of the case for your client and you will play an essential role in helping to set expectations.
Be Comfortable With Limited Information
In most cases, you will be operating with limited data and not every perspective. Creating strategies and recommendations in this context requires your ability to analyze a situation, synthesize significant data, filter irrelevant facts, and develop a perspective despite the missing data points.
Conduct Risk Analysis
The advice, recommendations, and options you give your client can have a life-changing impact. Being able to anticipate the potential risks and benefits of various tactics will improve your chances.
Your work will not happen in a vacuum. There will be rapid responses needed and you will have to be fast on your feet. People are unpredictable and unforeseen actions can throw you if you are not able to process data quickly and provide advice in a timely manner.
The best attorneys have an insatiable desire to gather information. That can take the form of asking questions that open up new lines for thought or diligently doing research. This drive is what pushes good lawyers to dig into details, do deep research, and evaluate case law constantly. At the end of the day, your opinion doesn’t stand up in court, so it must be backed with the facts that you have uncovered.
4. Operate Out of Empathy
When we use empathy in the practice of law, we can gain insights that the facts alone may not yield the answers. It is these skills that help craft compelling arguments and give context for the motivation and state of mind of the people involved in the case. In one of her Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg describes one tactic that she used over the years to maintain a sense of empathy for the implications of her work.
“One of the things that I have done every other year with my law clerks, more often, if they are so inclined, is to visit the local jail and Lorton Penitentiary, which is the nearest penitentiary. We visited St. Elizabeth’s, the facility for the criminally insane, when it was a Federal facility. Now it is a District facility, so we haven’t gone there in the past few years.
I do that to expose myself to those conditions, and also for my law clerks. Most of them will go on to practice in large law firms specializing in corporate business, and won’t see the law as it affects most people. That is one of the things I do to stay in touch.”
Consider Different Perspectives
As lawyers, we have to have a healthy dose of skepticism. No story we hear is 100% accurate and no perspective is comprehensive. That is why we must develop the skill to take the perspective of the various players involved in our cases to develop new concepts and ways of understanding the facts. Creating a holistic narrative of the various perspectives can create new insights.
Check Your Ego
This work is part art, part science. Good attorneys know how to separate themselves from the work for their sake and for their clients. Anyone that has been a lawyer for an extended amount of time will tell you that they have won cases that they expected to lose and lost cases that they thought for sure they would win. It goes with the territory. It can be humbling, and often requires us to exercise a short memory of those events to keep moving forward. There will be times when, despite your expectation setting and advice, your client wants to pursue an option that you think is not advised. When you are able to explain to them why that may not be the best route while still remaining empathetic to their needs, you are better equipped to serve them effectively.
Our ability to empathize is directly connected to the ability to identify creative solutions. Each client, yours and opposing counsel’s, has their own set of goals, objectives, and concerns. When you can identify what is most important to them, you are better equipped to think outside-of-the-box to craft solutions that you didn’t realize were possible.
As of 2020, there were 1,328,692 active attorneys residing in the United States along with 334 million people, thousands of government agencies and entities, and millions more businesses, trusts, non-profits, and the like. It is safe to say we don’t simply need more lawyers — we need more good ones, too. For those of us that pursue the call of the law, committing to being the good lawyers that our clients deserve is both the right thing to do and a way to stand out.