8 Skills You Need to Be a Successful Lawyer
Like any other career, a successful legal career is built on having the right skills.
At times, you need to be a creative and persuasive writer, but at other times, you need to be an analytical and dispassionate one.
You have to be dedicated to books, but you can't be afraid of attention and speaking in front of people, either.
You need to be charming with people, but you also have to be cold and clear with them at times.
In short, to be a lawyer is to be a walking contradiction. You need the skills of a scientist and an artist, an extrovert and an introvert, and you need to excel at those skills too. After all, there are thousands of law students and only so many law firms.
As a lawyer at a law firm in Jersey, I have been studying and working in the legal profession for many years. I know what it takes to be a lawyer and I know the skills you really need.
1. Attention to Detail
Fans of The Wire will remember Lester’s words to a young detective under his wing: “We’re building something here, Detective. We’re building it from scratch. And all the pieces matter.”
The scene was, arguably, one of the most accurate descriptions in a TV show of what being a lawyer actually entails: building a case with details. It’s called discovery and it essentially consists of going through pages and pages of paperwork, hours and hours of video or audio, and thousands of thousands of pieces of information.
A lawyer’s job is to find the one piece of information that doesn’t fit — or does fit — a certain trend. While it’s not exactly glamorous, it’s a vital part of pre-trial preparation and, really, it’s what most of the job is all about. In short, it’s tiring, time-consuming work and, without attention to detail, it would be impossible.
2. Logical Reasoning
Attention to detail means being able to spot a needle in a haystack; logical reasoning means questioning what that needle means, what it entails and whether any similar needles have been spotted elsewhere.
- Is the needle really a needle, or is it masquerading as a needle?
- Is the needle relevant?
- Does the needle fit into any theory or narrative?
- Does the needle help the case? Or is the needle just an anomaly?
That’s what logical reasoning means — and law is full of it. The universe is messy, unordered and often random. Logical reasoning is about trying to find patterns and explanations for those patterns, among all the chaos.
3. Legal Reading & Legal Writing
Reading and writing are the most basic of career skills and they are required for almost every career imaginable.
However, the reading and writing of legal documents is a whole different kettle of fish. The language of the law is often dense and can be almost impenetrable to an outsider.
Legislations, constitutions, amendments, rights, laws, bills and directives are all, more often than not, immensely difficult to interpret.
The reason for this is that laws are often built on top of other laws, which are built on top of rights, amendments, directives and so forth. Then there are the terms themselves.
- What is a directive and how is it different to a law?
- What is a bill and how is it different to legislation?
Learning how to read and write about the law requires a strong analytical mind and the acquisition of a whole new vocabulary. If this sounds an awful lot like learning a new language, you’re not alone. The word “legalese” was coined in 1911 to describe the confusing jargon of legal language.
In fact, some of it is literally another language. Latin is used a lot in legalese for a whole range of legal situations.
To give you an idea, here’s a quick breakdown of some commonly used Latin legal terms. Some are used in everyday language, while others are extremely specialist:
- Ad hoc — A solution to a particular situation which is not meant to be used in other situations.
- De facto — Something which is legally true in practice, but which has never been made into anything official.
- Malum in se — An act which should be considered immoral by everyone, regardless of what the law says.
- Nemo dat quod non habet — The idea that if you buy something which has been stolen, then you don’t have a legal right to it.
- Nota bene — This literally translates as “note well” and is used to direct people’s attention to something particularly important at the end of a document.
- Pro bono — Work that is being done for free.
Being a lawyer also requires perseverance — whether that’s with the aforementioned slog of paperwork, with tricky clients, or with stubborn judges.
The law is a tough thing to understand and an even tougher thing to work with. However, work with it you must. There is no other way.
Your attention to detail and perseverance should culminate in a kind of perfectionism which means that your case is flawless. It needs to be.
During a trial, the other lawyer’s job is to find holes in your case — just as it’s your job to find holes in theirs — so you need to make sure there are no holes to find. At the very least, you need to be able to explain all of those holes and that comes from being prepared and from being a perfectionist.
Whether it’s a jury, a client, or a judge, no-one believes a lawyer who doesn’t believe in themselves.
Self-confidence is vital. Without it, you won’t be able to convince anyone of anything — and convincing people is something you’ll need to do a lot as a lawyer. Clients need to be convinced that you offer the best service, juries need to be convinced of your client’s innocence, and judges need to be convinced that you are sticking to the law.
Lawyers are more likely to be self-employed than people working in other professions.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but working for yourself does mean you need to discipline yourself to work. This can be especially hard for lawyers, when the work in question can be so difficult.
However, before you even get that far, you’ll need the right qualifications. This, too, requires a lot of self-discipline. Gaining the right legal degrees can take years and can cost a lot of money. No-one is going to force you to get those qualifications; you have to force yourself to do it.
8. A Strong Moral Code
Some clients are guilty and some clients are innocent. Only you can decide whether or not working for a particular client is the right thing to do.
It’s certainly easier to work with a client if you do believe them, if you do think that they are innocent. But beyond that, it is ultimately your decision who you work with. Deciding who to work with and why requires a strong sense of right and wrong.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
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About the Author
Lorraine McClure is a lawyer at Parslows, a firm of lawyers from Jersey in the Channel Islands. She has been working and studying in the legal profession for over two decades.