What Makes a Good Lawyer? Common Traits of Successful Attorneys Today
In a difficult, confusing, or complicated situation, individuals and companies may find themselves desperately seeking the guidance of a well-prepared and reliable legal professional. A great attorney has the potential to have a dramatic and positive impact on the life of a client. Whether it’s by helping them through a difficult family law matter, protecting them against false charges, or securing fair financial compensation after an accident, attorneys advocate for people during some of the most challenging times in their life. Lawyers matter.
But what makes a good lawyer? It’s not an easy job, and not everyone is cut out for it. The American Bar Foundation (ABF) found that approximately a quarter of lawyers leave the profession within the first seven years. A legal degree can also be applied to a multitude of professional environments and careers. But for anyone that wants to know how to find a good lawyer or how to be a good lawyer, it’s crucial to consider the key factors that make today’s attorneys successful. Below are ten traits that are common to the best lawyers in the United States.
Passion for the Job
As a starting point, successful lawyers almost always have a true passion for their job. You have probably heard popular cliches like “choose a job you love and you will never work a day in your life”. Of course, we all know that in the real world it’s not quite that simple. At the same time, there is a wide body of scientific evidence that demonstrates the importance of passion for your work. Some have an already developed enthusiasm for lifelong learning, but as noted by Deloitte, one of the keys to talent development is cultivating worker passion. In other words, people who are passionate about what they are doing are happier, more fulfilled, and perform better. If you have a passion for serving people and an interest in the law, you should consider applying for admission into law school.
Compassion for Clients
Without compassion for their clients, a lawyer will never reach their true professional potential. The top legal minds in the field almost invariably highlight compassion and service when they offer advice to law students and aspiring lawyers. For example, as reported by the Columbia Daily Spectator, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told law students that they should try to use their degree to “make things a little better for other people”. A lawyer who is committed to represent and helping their clients is likely to find meaning and success in their professional life.
Great Communication Skills
On a fundamental level, attorneys are communicators. They communicate with their clients, they communicate with other parties to the case, and they communicate with the court. Beyond that, lawyers communicate in a wide range of different ways. A great lawyer knows how to get important ideas across in formal legal writing, in informal emails, in phone conversations, through discussions in official legal settings, and in private conversations. Law students and aspiring lawyers should never miss an opportunity to sharpen their communication skills. It’s not just about the law, it’s also about the business. As noted by the American Bar Association (ABA), the average American law firm spends a considerable amount of time attracting and retaining clients. Lawyers need to know how to network with potential clients and how to demonstrate their professional capabilities in consultations with prospective clients. Remember, the greatest legal mind in the world will not be able to use their skills until they get hired.
Willingness to Listen
One of the most underrated traits shared by almost every successful attorney is a strong ability and willingness to listen. Although strong listening is a part of overall communication skills, it’s important to highlight listening as its own professional trait. Effective communication is a two-way street. Too many people fail to put in the time and energy to fully understand and comprehend what the other party is saying. When you truly open up your ears, you will probably recognize that people are giving you even more information than you thought. Listening to your clients, listening to witnesses, listening to your opposing counsel, and listening to the court can be the difference between winning and losing a case. Great lawyers take in all relevant information, analyze it, and create a plan of action.
Knowledge of the Law
Imagine that you were hurt in a truck accident on a local highway. You would probably want to turn to an experienced personal injury lawyer. If you’re considering starting a company and want guidance on corporate formation, you will undoubtedly want to find an experienced business attorney. While successful lawyers share many common traits, they may rely on a distinct body of law. The legal knowledge needed to be an effective corporate litigator is far different than the legal knowledge needed to help a California couple pursue private adoption. Great lawyers know their area of practice. Some of this knowledge comes from experience. Some of it comes from education. If you are currently pursuing your legal education, you will want to find the right law school classes that will be the most useful for you in your future practice.
Strong Writing Ability
One of the single defining traits that all successful attorneys share is excellent writing skills. Don’t be fooled by the flashy procedurals that are ever-popular on television, the vast majority of lawyers spend far more time writing than they do in oral arguments. Successful lawyers must be able to prepare effective, clear, and well-reasoned legal documents. If you want to take action now that will help you become a better lawyer in the future, focus on sharpening your writing skills. An attorney who can tell a compelling story that weaves in all of the relevant facts and arguments is an attorney that will be successful for a long time.
When you think about the job of an attorney, creativity may not be the first trait that comes to your mind. However, contrary to the popular conceptions of most people, successful attorneys are often highly creative people. The law is not purely a science. There is an art to effective legal practice. Remember, each client that an attorney deals with will have their own unique set of goals, objectives, and concerns. In some cases, ‘outside-the-box’ thinking can help craft a solution that the client may never even realize was possible. Successful lawyers know how to tailor their creativity to suit every situation. All cases should be approached with an open mind.
At times, lawyers are required to make judgments — both for themselves and for their clients. For instance, a lawyer may have to decide whether a legal claim is worth pursuing at all. Alternatively, an attorney may be involved deep in settlement negotiations and their client may ask them for their opinion on a proposed deal. To be clear, the client is ultimately responsible for making a choice, but it’s the lawyer’s job to make sure that the client knows and understands all relevant information so that they can make an informed decision. An attorney who lacks good judgment is an attorney who will not last very long in the field.
A Healthy Skepticism
Every successful attorney maintains a healthy skepticism. This does not mean that you need to be a pessimist or a negative person, but it does mean that you need to be aware of the fact that what you are being told might not represent the full story. Many experienced lawyers have stories about mistakes they made when they were just starting out in the field. A common error that almost every seasoned lawyer has made at least once involves believing someone without getting proper verification. In too many cases, clients and witnesses will leave out important details. As a result, the attorney is set up for an unfortunate surprise down the road. Successful attorneys always maintain that healthy skepticism. If something sounds ‘wrong’ or ‘off’, they take the time to verify the information.
Finally, successful lawyers know how to persevere. The law is a tough field. There is no reason to sugarcoat it; practicing law can be one of the most rewarding and meaningful careers out there, but it’s also a lot of work. As is true with any profession, success requires effort. There will be difficult days. You may be stuck dealing with a client who is making your life unnecessarily hard, an opposing counsel who is being rude for no reason, or a judge who rules the wrong way on a key procedural matter. You may simply be frustrated because you spilled hot coffee on your shirt that morning. It happens. What sets successful attorneys apart from ordinary attorneys is that they know how to persevere through the challenging times to get to the rewarding and meaningful moments that make it all worth it.