Unhappy lawyers don’t hate the law; it’s often that they suffer a lack of ability in one or more of the many other areas that are required of a great lawyer. Here’s an inventory of the capabilities great lawyers need.
Spring is the season for planting. We prepare the soil, we put in seed, we water and we wait for growth. If only we cared about our legal careers with the same attention and logic. In twenty years of coaching I’ve met with many lawyers who were unhappy with their careers; some even wanted to leave the profession. Very few of them wished to do so because of distaste for doing legal work. In most instances, the cause was dissatisfaction with another aspect of the role.
Being a great lawyer requires so much more than we’re taught in law school, or that we’re warned about once in a firm. For this reason, I usually provide the younger lawyers I coach with this list. It helps them to understand that in many ways, once school finishes the real work begins. Here are the aspects of being a lawyer that must be eventually mastered:
- Understanding the law
- The law
- The context
- The client
- The other side
- Development of Business Development Ability
- Understanding the typical client of each practice group
- Understanding our own practice strengths and weaknesses
- Understanding the market (size v. competitors, economy, politics, trends, international markets, etc.)
- Communication skills
- Administration of Your Practice
- Processes and procedures
- File/case management
- Prioritization and time management
- Billing process – collection
- Development of Your Reputation
- Other lawyers
- Referral sources
- Development of Your Interpersonal Skills
- Office manner
- Client service
- External socialization (with clients, for marketing, etc.)
(This list is a work in progress and you can likely add to it, but you get the picture). Next, I explain to the young lawyer that no one is expected to be an expert in all of these areas until they’ve been practicing for 8-10 years. This is simply a laundry list of skills and capabilities they need to develop throughout their earlier years of practice so that when the time comes and provided their production warrants it, they can be invited safely into the partnership; or alternatively they can safely practice on their own.
Lawyers like to feel confident. It can be emotionally crippling for a lawyer to feel they are weak in one or more areas of their job. I’ve often been brought into a firm to help deal with issues on this list, yet in almost 30 years of working with law firms I have never seen a firm create such a list or give it to their associates. Hiring a lawyer without ensuring they receive mentoring in all areas of expertise required is a bit like planting an entire garden and then not bothering to water it. The cost of recruiting and training lawyers is an enormous investment by firms. Yet beyond hiring, firms spend the majority of their mentoring and training time on legal skills, not the many soft skills that often make the difference in the longevity and effectiveness of a lawyer over the longer term.
I encourage firms to develop training and mentoring programs that ensure their lawyers – regardless of year of call – are developing in all of the areas above. If necessary, engage a coach to assist with this process. For younger lawyers reading this, I encourage you to do a self-assessment, determine your areas of weakness and seek assistance in working on these areas.
In my experience, lawyers who learn how to do all of these areas better find they start to enjoy the practice of law again. This is how you truly make a career blossom.