Much has been written about the essential attributes of a successful lawyer. Lawyers are routinely described as logical, confident, competitive, analytically skilled, attentive to detail, and effective at communication and persuasion. The American Bar Association defines a lawyer as, “A licensed professional who advises and represents others in legal matters” and who “has two main duties: to uphold the law while also protecting a client’s rights.”
You are a lawyer.
So, then it follows that you are a problem-solver. An advocate. A counselor. An advisor.
You are a reader, a writer, a researcher.
An eloquent elocutionist.
A composer, deposer, drafter, and story crafter.
A rights-protector and dispute-settler.
You may have been called a paper mechanic. A verbal virtuoso. A mental gymnast (uneven bars, your forte). A legalese linguist with plain English highlights. I have.
While these descriptors are mostly accurate (not sure I would readily stipulate to the “paper mechanic”), they are not what account for your success or mine as a lawyer. They are, in fact, the core requirements for performance as a lawyer. They are not what set you apart; they establish your likeness to all others. Yet, it is these attributes and descriptors that often shape lawyers’ professional identities, and, in turn, limit their perception of their strengths and qualifications for opportunities outside their immediate disciplines.
In the interest of broadening your perception of your skills and your access to greater business opportunities in and outside of the practice of law, I move for reconsideration of how you, as a lawyer:
- Identify the attributes that account for your professional success, and
- Ultimately define yourself as a professional.
While I invite all lawyers and law students to entertain this reconsideration, it is especially useful for:
(1) Lawyers struggling to articulate their unique differentiators and ultimately secure more representations or lateral opportunities in a highly competitive legal marketplace;
(2) Lawyers fantasizing about leaving the practice but constrained by the notion “I am not qualified to do anything else—at least not something that would be an adequate financial substitute”; and
(3) Law students facing a drought in available legal jobs.
Chances are that you now—or at some point in the future—will find yourself in one or more of the three aforementioned groups. I have.
Attributes Accounting for Lawyering Success
If you grant my motion for reconsideration, I invite you to entertain the following:
What are the key attributes of a successful lawyer, rather than the minimum necessary qualities (which, by the way, is not to suggest that those minimum threshold requirements are themselves unimpressive)?
Before answering this question, let’s define the relevant term,“successful.” There are as many definitions of “successful” as there are persons defining it. For example, some practitioners gauge their success by measuring the percentage of positive client outcomes they achieve. Others measure success by the number of extrinsic rewards they enjoy, primarily in the form of compensation, title, and business card prestige. And others define success by the degree of intrinsic reward they get from their work—gratification from the pursuit of justice, the thrill of the courtroom adrenaline rush, or the privilege of doing what they love. For our purposes, let’s use a combination of the three:
Successful lawyering: consistently achieving positive client outcomes while enjoying both the extrinsic and intrinsic rewards of the profession.
Turning back to the question—what are the key attributes of a successful lawyer?—unsurprisingly, it depends. It depends, in part, upon the practice area, the type of legal job that you hold, and the organizational culture in which you practice.
A few key indicators of lawyering success, however, transcend these variables. While this is not an exhaustive list, it highlights those that I believe are most highly correlated with lawyering success. These key indicators are not the performance criteria specific to your technical aplomb that routinely appear on annual reviews. I am referring to the attributes that facilitate your sustainable long-term exceptional performance, your genuine engagement in your work, and your access to advancement opportunities:
- Agility, flexibility, nimbleness
- Expert synthesizing of multiple disparate parts
Agility, Flexibility, Nimbleness
The fact that agility, flexibility, and nimbleness are indicators of lawyering success is somewhat ironic. After all, our common law system is a precedent-based system, founded upon adherence to longstanding practice and a disinclination to disrupt the status quo. As a result, lawyers are not the first people that come to mind when agility and flexibility are the topics of conversation. Innovators, entrepreneurs, and yoga instructors are.
The practice of law is as much procedural as it is substantive. Rules of civil procedure, court rules, and countless other procedural mandates dictate every detail in the process of lawyering. Even the font and margin size are mandated.
Because lawyers work in a rule-laden precedential system, lawyers are required to be precise and attentive to detail. And in a practice where foreseeability and “knew or should have known” are familiar themes, the predictability that comes with a precedential system is refreshing.
Yet, it is not the proper filing of your brief 21 days before the hearing with 12 point Courier font and 1.5 inch margins that is a predictor of your success. Rather, it is your ability to revamp your strategy on the eve of trial, unflappably defend a TRO, manage three senior partners’ competing demands on your time, or “pull the trigger” with imperfect information. These are a small handful of the countless fact patterns that arise where you will be called upon to adapt with little to no forewarning. Your attention to detail and persuasive gifts alone will not poise you for success under these circumstances. Your nimbleness will.
Expert Synthesizing of Multiple Disparate Parts
Ahh, the fun of fusing fragments into choate collections!
You are preparing your motion for summary judgment. You have relevant evidence from 32 depositions, 40 documents and 18 sets of interrogatories. Seventeen different compelling cases support your five-pronged argument, each for a different reason. Three more, while arguably distinguishable, are troubling you. The ability to identify all of the relevant content, organize it, and present it as a cohesive and compelling argument certainly turns on a number of the essential qualities of a lawyer: analytic skill, attention to detail, communication skill, and persuasiveness.
But those qualities are simply not enough to succeed in this task. You must see the granular details with the same clarity that you see the big picture. You must see the relationship between and among the numerous parts and appreciate the relevance and value of each.
You must be a mental Venn diagrammer—able to envision all possible relations between a finite (albeit enormous) collection of different sets of information. This task requires a mental gymnast, an analytic Rubik’s-cuber, a synthesizer of multiple disparate parts.
While the example I use is specific to a litigator, the same gift is required of a successful transactional lawyer who, for example, may be drafting a 70-page asset purchase agreement. Drafting such a document requires a deep understanding of how each definition, section, paragraph, and sentence relates to every other to ensure the targeted objectives and protections are achieved.
Resilience is a key driver of lawyering success. But it also should be recognized as a fundamental core requirement.
How can resilience be a differentiator if all lawyers should possess some reasonable threshold?
Because few, if any, legal interviewers screen for this quality. As a result, too few people enter the practice possessing this attribute. Consequently, the attrition process (rather than the interview process) weeds out the less resilient. The high turnover rate—driven, in large part, by chronic exposure to high levels of stress—highlights the absence of this essential quality. While more careful scrutiny should be given to hiring criteria, candidates are not currently screened for resilience. This opens the door for the most resilient —who are still standing when the attrition dust clears—to shine.
Admittedly, even if new evaluation criteria were broadly adopted for screening legal talent, one’s level of resilience would still be a differentiator because resilience is highly correlated with agility and nimbleness as well as adeptness at fusing fragments into choate collections.
Whichever of the three categories of lawyers described above is most fitting for you, consider what exceptional strengths make you an outlier among lawyers as well as among the larger heterogeneous business population. The exercise will not only help you articulate your value as you negotiate for lateral opportunities but also will bolster your credibility before a business audience who is dubious of lawyers’ business acumen.
A Broader Construction of Your Professional Identity
Earlier, I moved for your reconsideration of how you ultimately define yourself as a professional, inviting you to entertain a broader construction of your skillset and, in turn, your professional identity.
When asked: “So, what do you do?” people almost invariably respond by offering their professional label. “I’m a lawyer.”
You may be a bit more specific by offering your practice area: “I’m an intellectual property attorney.”
That label may be perfectly accurate and appropriate. But I am inviting you to consider more broadly how you identify so you are better positioned to articulate your competitive advantage and to secure more alluring opportunities inside and outside the practice of law.
Some of you have done this exercise and may already embrace alternative ways of identifying yourself professionally. You may respond more playfully with a perfectly apt, alternative descriptor: “I’m a juggler.”
Is a juggler a ball-tossing children’s entertainer or a dexterous, hyper-alert, multi-tasker, adept at managing multi-pronged tasks under pressure with acute and immediate attention to tactical execution and client reaction? He’s both!
As you conduct this exercise, map out the trajectory of your career, identifying each of your prior roles and functions. You’ve already done this to some extent by creating your resume or your CV. Unlike the fact-specific, tactical lens through which you likely crafted your resume or CV, take a bird’s eye, conceptual view of each role and set of functions you performed.
For example, a securities litigation defense attorney is quite skilled at distilling mountains of discovery, masterfully advocating in court, digesting the ever-developing requirements and obligations under the securities laws, understanding fiduciary obligations, and advising boards of directors regarding these obligations.
Do these functions and skills point to the conclusion that a securities litigation defense counsel is a high-stakes commercial litigator or a corporate executive risk-management strategist? She’s both.
In planning my own transition from lawyer to business executive, I studied the recurring themes that emerged from my restructuring expertise, business leadership experience, and formal business education. By viewing my skills and experience conceptually from a bird’s eye view, a very clear picture crystalized.
I am not only a corporate bankruptcy lawyer, a turnaround expert, and a restructuring professional.
I am an expert in facilitating transformational organizational change, marrying yesterday’s operational and financial turnaround expertise with today’s leadership of human assets in high-stress and distressed situations. I quilt cohesion from chaos, as I am a cerebral and intuitive jigsaw puzzler—evidenced by years of experience combining many disparate parts to create a unified whole, literally and figuratively. I build unity from adversity, identify synergies and inspire skeptical audiences to reject the status quo, facilitated by an acute appreciation of multiple stakeholder interests. Years of practice achieving multi-constituency settlements in highly contentious reorganizations polished these skills. From the perspective of the executive leadership team and the reticent individual, I understand barriers to change and strategic solutions for eliminating them. I have facilitated many organizations’ triumphant celebration of their fresh start! And I have realized my own!
So can you. And if a fresh start of sorts is not your wish, you are nonetheless poised for better access to opportunity (however you define that, both inside and outside the practice of law), as you have greater clarity about what sets you apart in the homogenous world of lawyering and in the more heterogeneous business world.