What makes a great lawyer?

The essence of becoming a great lawyer is realising that it isn’t about you.

This is hard…after all, after the law degree, law school, training, qualifying, trying to make your way, putting up with partners behaving like four-year-olds and working your socks off…of course it should be about you!

…But it isn’t.

It’s not really even about what you know. Obviously you have to know a great deal about the law; your technical skill set is precious and important and is your ticket to play; but it doesn’t make you a great lawyer.

It’s not about who you work for either…having a successful letterhead to write on is an advantage, might open doors, might do some of the early hard yards in helping you build your personal credentials – but at the end of the day it is just a letterhead and does not make you a great lawyer.

So what does?

Being a great lawyer is about three things:

1.    Accepting unequivocally that it is not about you.

2.    Recognising that for all the law you know and the brilliance of your mind, what you know is just a ticket to ride, and finally and crucially…

3.    To be able to work inside the client’s head.

And it is this third element that I would like to focus on; it is the key to everything.

Clients come in all shapes and sizes – huge multi-national telecos, government backed institutions, the banks, fleet-of-foot technology companies etc; and the first mistake a lawyer makes is to think they act for these companies – they do not. They act for individuals within the companies.

Professionally, of course, the lawyer acts in the best interests of the company, but in reality the challenge is not working with an “entity”, but to work with real people within the entity who have personal targets, hopes, ambitions, fears…People, as well, who have different levels of understanding, different tolerances to risk and who, frankly, have good days and bad days.

The most important skill for any lawyer with aspirations to be a great lawyer therefore is the ability to listen.

It sounds too easy, but therein probably lays the trap. It sounds easy, but it is VERY hard to do well.

I hope that being charming, calm, professional and reassuring are positive characteristics of most lawyers (although we will all know many for whom this is a significant stretch!) but how many of us properly listen?

Listening is not just about taking an accurate note of instruction, it is also about understanding what lies behind the words; what is the ambition of the people involved for the matter in question; where are their vulnerabilities, their blind spots, their assumptions, their misplaced faith, their likely challenges.

In so doing the lawyer can not only discern a preferred course, but also the most acceptable tone of voice; to have alternative courses of action in mind when things hit problems and to have the language and the demeanour that reassures, challenges and inspires when that is necessary too.

Listening is fundamental to your success and yet it will not appear on any law school syllabus and it is rarely systematically coached once you begin your legal career. Instead we elevate a few who intuitively “get it” and call them rain-makers and for the rest of us we are assigned the task of getting busy so we can worship at the altar of activity and the hourly rate!

This is so wrong…All clients (that is people in clients) want to feel that their lawyers understand their interests, priorities, concerns and hopes. It really does not take much to engage around these issues; to explore, encourage, facilitate and develop ideas through conversation, by listening and validating your interpretation… And all of us are capable of doing this so much better than we typically do today.

Once lawyers have invested in their glass towers, have created their brand strategies and their sector expertise, they will look around and still be faced with the same clients with the same human concerns – very few of which are addressed by having a lift that goes to the thirtieth floor or a glossy brochure that is created by a reassuringly expensive creative consultant.

The towers, the brochures, the art etc are not statements about client listening, they are statements that say “look at us – aren’t we successful” and “look at us – we must know a lot and be very clever”!

…In a way, all fine. It is a competitive place and lawyers need to compete with each other as much as for clients – but whatever you do, never confuse this for what your clients want.

Being a great lawyer does not depend on the view from your office window but whether you can visualise what your client sees when they ask you for your help.

Paul Gilbert is a director of LBC Wise Counsel SA and Chief Executive of LBC Wise Counsel the UK based specialist management and skills training consultancy for lawyers. www.lbcwisecounsel.com