In my position as the legal director of student-run law clinic, I supervise and teach law students. In this role, I am often asked what makes a good lawyer. When I was in private practice, I assumed that exemplary drafting and public speaking skills were required to make “good lawyers.” I was (mostly) wrong.
Now, when a new school term starts, I make sure to tell the new batch of law students that they simply need to master five simple skills to excel in the profession:
1. Be Kind
So basic, but so often forgotten. Be kind to the court. Be kind to your client. Be kind to the opposing client. Be kind to opposing counsel. Reputation is everything. The legal community is small and lawyers like to gossip; if you are kind to other lawyers, court staff and the judiciary, it will be noticed. Smile. Say “Thank you.” Be courteous—basic manners go a long way. Court clerks and court administration staff are strong allies, they have more knowledge on legal processes than you and can make your life as a lawyer pleasant or miserable. Show them the respect they deserve. Don’t forget, clerks talk to judges. Kindness to opposing counsel/the opposing client can help your client. Overly aggressive behavior will entice aggressive behavior in return. Don’t forget the collaborative lawyering skills you learned in your negotiation class.
2. Be Professional
Unfortunately, there are lawyers who show up to court unprepared, both in terms of dress and in terms of organization. “Wear a suit jacket to court.” “Iron your shirt and tie.” “Leggings are not suit pants.” “If you wear it to a club, it’s not appropriate to wear to court.” “Turn your phone off.” Although this may seem like common sense, I have made all of the statements to law students at court on a number of occasions.
Have your diary with you. The easiest way to do this is to sync your work calendar to your mobile device. Come ready to set a further court hearing.
Don’t have papers crumbled in a pile. Every day I see lawyers rummaging through papers when addressing the court. Have your documents ready in an organized fashion. Use tabs.
If you look professional, you will garner respect. Generally speaking, the converse applies if you do not.
3. Don’t Be Late!
I am continually surprised by the number of lawyers (both junior and senior) who miss court filing deadlines, miss court appearances, or generally fail to adhere to deadlines previously agreed to. In today’s tech-savvy world, there are no excuses for this! All deadlines should be entered into your online calendar.
Set alerts so you are reminded about deadlines in advance.
Block time off in your calendar the day(s) before the filing deadline to ensure you have the time necessary to complete the task. Make an appointment with yourself to get the job done. Set an alarm on your computer or mobile phone to give you enough time to get to court.
4. Meet/Manage Expectations
Respond to emails! Yes—the days of a junior lawyer are extremely busy, but respond to your client. Responding to a client’s email can take as little as one minute.
If a client sends you an email and you just don’t have time to answer it, ask your assistant to respond. Ask your assistant to tell the client that you received the message and are tied up for the next couple days but you will respond by X date. Then, make sure you respond by that date! Set a deadline farther out than you think you need. If you happen to respond earlier, then your client will be pleasantly surprised.
If you don’t have an assistant and are crunched for time, use Siri (or any other electronic dictation tool) to send a quick email to the client. Let the client know you will respond to their questions by X date. The client will be less likely to inundate you with, “Why haven’t you responded to me?” emails in the interim which saves you time in the long run.
If you know you are not going to meet a deadline, let the client and/or the other lawyer know in advance. They will more understanding if you ask for an extension in advance rather than if you ignore them altogether.
5. Ask for Help/Make Connections
There is no need to reinvent the wheel. If you are acting on a file and don’t know what to do, ask someone for help! Don’t guess. Don’t spend hours and hours researching the answer when someone else in your firm, at the courts or anywhere else, can help you.
Figure out who the experts are and develop relationships with them. Ask around or snoop on firm websites and social media. Attend continuing legal education sessions. Join lawyer groups that interest you.
Lawyers, more often than not, are more than willing to take the time to help and mentor. Engage them.