Think about the best lawyer you know. What are the key attributes that make her a great lawyer? I asked a few people this question and, unsurprisingly, none of the answers directly involved the practice of law.
If we think about it, a lawyer’s best attributes involve how they conduct themselves day to day and on the more routine issues that need to be addressed. In contrast, cross-examination of an expert witness at trial or oral argument before an appellate court happens less frequently. While I am certainly not diminishing the importance of the ability to excel at these essential ingredients of the practice of law, I would observe that the best attributes of lawyers are attainable by each one of us and, inevitably, would lead to those legal abilities.
Here are my observations of these key attributes that have nothing to do with the practice of law.
1. They are effective communicators. How many times have you experienced a situation get worse because of ineffective communication? It happens all the time. Either there is a lack of communication or the communication does not strike the right message in substance or tone. While this happens to everyone, really good lawyers seem to have a knack of saying (or writing) the right message at the right time. Whether it is an email to opposing counsel or an internal discussion with a colleague, these lawyers are effective communicators. In a world of instantaneous messages and an expectation of an immediate response, it is particularly important to be reflective of not only what you are saying, but how you are saying it.
2. They do what they say they will do. How many of us have been promised a certain task by a certain time, but failed to receive it? It happens routinely. However, good lawyers make good on their word on both small and large deeds. Whether it is simply providing a copy of document when you promise it or completing a large report involving a complex analysis on time, a strong attribute of a lawyer is the ability to consistently get it done when they say they will. Call it credibility, which is discussed more below. We all gravitate to and trust people who hold true to their word.
3. They are authentic. We have all met people who we question whether we see their true selves or, instead, some persona they are trying to embody. A key attribute of a lawyer is to be her authentic self, imperfections and all. Nobody is perfect and people seem to relate better to those who acknowledge their limitations or mistakes. Being a lawyer is not about perfection, but credibility. There is a jury instruction that states, “you are the sole judges of the credibility of the witnesses and the weight to be given their testimony.” This is true in and out of a courtroom and applies to our daily interactions. Credibility is gained when others can identify with you. The very good lawyers seem to be their true selves and, in doing so, earn respect from others.
4. They are disciplined. I would estimate that upwards of 90% of a lawyer’s time is behind a desk or in front of a computer preparing for something — whether a deposition, court appearance, contract negotiations, a meeting, or otherwise. That is a lot of time where one, individually, has to hold herself accountable to efficiently and effectively managing the tasks in front of her. There is no one else there to force her to get tasks completed. Distractions abound. Emails, the Internet, the Broncos, or just a walk down to a colleague’s office are all tempting. The best lawyers seem to accomplish what needs to be done. As we all know, there is no magic wand. Instead, they are diligent in completing those tasks in front of them, small and large. They execute on their plan.
5. They are selfless. The more and more I witness good leaders who are lawyers, I see that they are genuinely committed to the success of the people around them. Rarely does a lawyer accomplish much on her own. Instead, she realizes that she has had help along with way and, therefore, a responsibility to pay it forward. Good lawyers look to help others around them and recognize that the collective success of those individuals is the true reflection of their own success. Importantly, they realize that another’s success is not to their own detriment and that a rising tide does in fact lift all boats.
You may agree or disagree with my observations on these key attributes. I had many others that I did not include. However, my premise is not necessarily the completeness of the list, but that these characteristics do not involve the direct practice of law. Quoting whole passages from statutes, having a photographic memory of the record on appeal, or even the ability to speak on any subject extemporaneously did not make the list. While impressive, I would submit that they are not essential qualities to being a good lawyer.
Importantly, if a lawyer has the characteristics enumerated above, I’m willing to bet they most likely are successful in the actual practice of law. Finally, these attributes are not merely aspirational and attributable to great lawyers. Instead, they are ones that we all can and should embody. The great lawyers have found a way to live them. D