In the course of a conversation last weekend someone asked me about who I thought were the best competition lawyers in Brussels. Not that I’m going to share my thoughts on that here because
it wouldn’t be elegant to use the blog for self-publicity - it would be unfair as, aside from the subjectivity inherent to the reply, I’ve only been exposed to the work of a limited number of people. Our conversation then shifted to what is it that makes a great lawyer, and that’s something that I thought could make an interesting subject for a blog post (it’d been a while since we didn’t post random ruminations).
To be sure, there’s no perfect lawyer for all situations, areas of practice and clients, but in any event the ideal recipe should probably incorporate a balanced doses of multiple ingredients, most of which aren’t taught, or at least not at law schools, and often not even at most law firms:
Typical (bad) legal education mainly centers on developing and evaluating brain power. In my own country as well as in other continental systems this too often means plain memory. In anglosaxon systems (and to some extent in the German system too, or so I’m told) logic, analysis and writing receive more attention. And once you’re out of university some people will measure how of a good lawyer you are internally in terms of billable hours (we’ve already dealt with that at length before), and externally in terms of which firm employs you and your hourly rate (in my experience very imperfect proxies too).
But, in reality, there are a wide array of intangible abilities or skills that are extremely hard to assess and even to perceive, but that, fortunately, can be developed and that are, in my view, what make the difference. I refer to things like empathy, integrity, creativeness, common sense, communication and people skills, diligence and responsibility, perfectionism, the ability to question everything starting with oneself, availability, hunger/ambition (to learn and to improve), commitment (often confused with the belief that success deserves absurd sacrifices), marketing and selling, loyalty, reliability, curiosity, passion, experience, good judgment, ability to prioritize (which has always made me distrust advice from lawyers who seem not to get priorities in their own life straight; or maybe I’m the erred one??), attention to detail, the ability not to lose the forest for the trees, having a practical business-oriented mind, being motivational and fair to colleagues, calmness, prudency, confidence (in your ability to improve, not the false security of thinking you already master everything), and I’m sure I’m forgetting many others.
Of course, there are many people that make partner at BigLaw firms without many of these, in which case some will consider that they are “successful”, “rich” and “hence” great lawyers. I would disagree because, lawyering being a service, excellent lawyering should be measured by its impact on others, not on the lawyer.
As I said earlier, to me, the ideal probably lies in a right combination of the skills outlined above, or perhaps in their relentless pursuit. But if I had to choose the single most important ability to have in a lawyer, I’d say the ability to understand people.
By people I mean clients, colleagues, decision-makers (judges, authorities, etc), opponents as well as the processes and interactions within and among them. And by understanding I mean trying to work inside their mind to know or guess -sometimes even to help them know or guess- what they want, what moves them and how they are likely to move and be moved. Knowing the law will provide you with a basic knowledge of the common framework you all move in, but then you need a lot of listening and a bit of intuition.
The above is only my Saturday morning take at a question without an answer, and, frankly, it’s highly unlikley that an ultra-specialized 30 year old lawyer who chose EU competition law for a career will get it right… So, it’s your turn: what is it that makes a great lawyer?
P.S. Pictured above is Atticus Finch, the legal hero from To Kill a Mockingbird, who recurrently tops up every list of fictional lawyers. His domination is so uncontestable that the ABA had to come up with this list of The 25 Greatest Fictional Lawyers (Who Are Not Atticus Finch)