What makes a great lawyer?

  • Last updated 25-Jul-2016 13:18:10
  • Jennifer Overhaus, Former Partner and Head of a Global Practice Group in a Top-50 American Law Firm

When I received this article topic, my first instinct was to think, “This is an easy one to answer considering I’ve just written a 500+ page book on the subject, Juggling the Big for Lawyers: A career-building plan for developing your personal brand, client business, and leadership mindset.”

However, I realised that my book actually answers a different question, which is this: what makes, and how do I become, a successful lawyer?

The difference between a good lawyer and a successful lawyer

In an ideal world great lawyers would also be successful lawyers. But sadly, many great lawyers are not successful (and sometimes the most successful lawyers aren’t necessarily great lawyers).

Being a great lawyer requires a combination of high intelligence, strong analytical and advocacy skills, and an ability to communicate effectively (both verbally and in writing).

Great lawyers typically have a passion for a particular legal speciality or practice area, and master excellence as an expert, which fosters a high level of commitment to their work.

They also understand their clients’ objectives, and advocate on that basis (not on the law in isolation). For example, if advising a commercial client, great lawyers will appreciate the business, as well as legal, outcomes of their arguments.

But even if born with all of these qualities and determined to pursue genuine expertise, you aren’t guaranteed success, because at some point you will probably have to market your “greatness” and promote yourself.

What skills does a successful lawyer need?

Additionally, if you’re working in a firm, you’ll need to sell your services and attract clients—something requiring an entirely different skill set from those outlined before.

Attracting clients will necessitate networking, relationship building, public speaking, and learning how to influence and motivate, to name just a few!

For example, during my career I managed both Mark and Catherine. Catherine was considered a “great” lawyer; while Mark was very good, but not quite to Catherine’s level.

But, “greatness” without business is of little value to the firm. With this in mind, Mark nurtured relationships with contacts and clients and spent much of his free time enhancing his marketing and networking skills.

In contrast, Catherine almost entirely ignored this side of her career. A great technical lawyer with a stellar reputation for doing high quality work, she (naively) thought this should be enough.

Eventually, and inevitably, the firm expected Catherine to contribute more than her legal talents, and bring in business. Since she hadn’t developed the skills to do so, she was unable to rise to the task.

By that time Mark not only had the necessary skills, he had business of his own. As such, he was made partner. Unluckily for her, Catherine was not.

So the answer to your question is that every lawyer can strive for greatness—but you’ll need more than the obvious law-based qualities to succeed.

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