17 Skills of Successful Lawyers in 2015: PBI Town Hall Takeaways

On March 31, PBI gathered a dynamic and diverse panel of lawyers from across the continent to begin an innovative conversation exploring legal education and training. Our primary objective was to identify and explore the characteristics of successful attorneys in 2015, and to discuss the overarching goal of legal education — training law students and practitioners to be the best possible lawyers.

In the exploratory discussion aimed at defining the skills of successful attorneys, actual knowledge of substantive law and procedure was just one of many characteristics identified by the panel. “Soft skills” seemed to be the hot-button term that captured the essence of the characteristics that truly set up an attorney for success in practice, and in business. Here are a few key takeaways from the fascinating panel discussion, as our panelists talked through the defining skills that epitomize successful attorneys.

  • Self-direction and self-motivation – Steve Cozen, Robert Grey and Alan Treleaven all agreed that these traits are critical in the success of lawyers, primarily in their professional work, but also in identifying which of their personal skills and knowledge could be improved. Not only do you need to be able to keep yourself moving, you need to know what you need to work on. Alan Treleaven mentioned the importance of being able to self-identify your changing learning needs, as all lawyers’ needs are unique and likely to be constantly changing.
  • Commitment to lifelong learning – According to panelist Pat Nester, Executive Director of Texas Bar CLE, an excellent lawyer must take advantage of opportunities to improve her knowledge and skills to improve the quality of their practice. Lifelong learning has immense value to your clients and partners. Nester spoke of “a solemn oath to stay abreast of all things that will impact your practice.”
  • Effective communication – Communication skills in practice go far beyond the basics. According to Steve Cozen, founder of Cozen O’Connor, you need skills training in negotiation, interviewing and investigation to be successful.
  • Study of the techniques of persuasion – Pat Nester stated that these skills are imperative in taking the facts of law and molding it into a persuasive case. A superior understanding of these techniques could be what sets you apart from your competitors.
  • Analytical thinking – Boston University Law School Dean Maureen O’Rourke pointed out that the traditional goal of analytical thinking must be augmented with practical skills. As noted by several panelists, many of the analytical thinking skills are traditionally the focus of law school studies, but many law schools are now adding experiential training to better round out the skill sets of graduates.
  • Resilience – Dean O’Rourke mentioned “resilience and unflappability” as some of the personal characteristics that cannot be taught in law school, but are key traits of successful lawyers. Successful attorneys need to be able to stay strong…and bounce back.
  • Integrity  Clorox’s Senior Vice President-General Counsel, panelist Laura Stein, mentioned integrity and upholding the values of the profession as critical components of success in law practice. Stein stated compellingly, “We are upholding access to justice.”
  • Strategic thought about the needs of clients  Steve Cozen added to the list that the best lawyers think strategically about what is really best for their client, and mentioned that what is best for the client may not always be the result that attorneys are hired to fight for.
  • Leadership – Robert Grey, former President of the American Bar Association, said that leadership in the community is a key point of training by the Council on Legal Diversity. He commented that, “We want all of our lawyers to respect the idea that as a profession we have the responsibility to give back to our community.”
  • Skill in problem solving – Laura Stein added this to the list, stating that lawyers needs to be able to help their clients reach pragmatic solutions. She advocated for a practical, “let’s-focus-on-the-what-the-issue-is” approach to problem-solving with clients.
  • Ability to work in groups – All of our panelists agreed that, in today’s environment, it is imperative that attorneys have the skills needed to work in groups. Legal issues are becoming increasingly complex, which often requires the efforts of a team of lawyers. Steve Cozen added, “I want you to understand that what you do is not who you are – what you do is something greater, something larger…you are a part of something larger as a lawyer.”
  • Project management – As the complexity of cases continues to increase, the ability to effectively manage projects is a must. Maintaining a big picture perspective, while managing the details and sticking to a timeline, requires a skill set that is not often considered when reflecting on the work of attorneys.
  • Trust-building – Panelists Stein and Grey also discussed the critical importance of trust building skills in attorneys. In order to be successful, the ability to build trust among your clients, peers and business partners in paramount.
  • Accountability – Accountability goes beyond just being accountable personally. There is a definite business need for lawyers to be accountable to those they work with, work for, and represent. Without accountability, long term success becomes a more difficult goal.
  • Financial literacy – Stein and Dean O’Rourke spoke about the imperative need for financial literacy, with Dean O’Rourke adding that a course in “business fundamentals” should be added to law school curriculum to better prepare lawyers for success in the business world. A real and holistic understanding of how businesses work will only make you more valuable as a lawyer to your clients, your colleagues, and your employers.
  • Risk management – Learn the ability to manage and mitigate risk for yourself, your business, and your clients. According to Laura Stein, this means always being compliant and keeping your clients compliant. Lawyers need to have the skills and emotional intelligence to counsel their clients on risk.
  • Understanding the unique role of our profession to uphold the rule of law – Robert Grey, Partner at Hunton & Williams, VA, emphasized the need to consistently meet the highest standards of conduct and professionalism. Few other professions carry a comparable weight and ability to impact lives, businesses and finance as those who practice law. Your innate commitment to and respect for this responsibility should exist as the foundation of your career as a legal professional.

In October, PBI will bring together another talented panel to explore new methods that law schools, law firms, the organized bar and CLE organizations, and CLE regulators can use to achieve these lofty goals.

Think we missed anything? We would love to hear your thoughts. Join the conversation in social media, or comment below.

By | 2017-05-19T22:51:29+00:00 April 8th, 2015|Categories: Professional Development|Tags: , , , |10 Comments

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  1. Harold Goldner April 15, 2015 at 11:20 am

    An interest dialogue, indeed. Note, however that Dean O’Rourke is Dean of the respected law school at the other end of Commonwealth Avenue, Boston University, not Boston College.

    • PBI
      PBI April 15, 2015 at 12:03 pm

      Thank you! This has been corrected.

  2. Laila Keirstead May 8, 2015 at 9:25 am

    As a lawyer, I would imagine that you have to be self motivated and self guiding. That job as a whole is very independent. Most of the time the better lawyers are going to show qualities of a leader. Even if they aren’t leading with their voice, they are sure leading with their actions. A good lawyer is also going to think about his clients and what is in their best interests.

  3. Sean July 8, 2015 at 2:24 pm

    I like your point about the ability to work in groups being imperative for laywers. This is especially pertinent as many lawyers, today, are specializing. For example some lawyers may only practice criminal law, while others only handle personal injury cases. In this specialized environment, collaboration in a firm, or on a legal team is key.

  4. Charlotte Eddington August 11, 2015 at 12:03 pm

    I love your comments about using effective communication. That is a skill and tool that everyone needs to have. Especially general attorneys. I will have to remember to teach my kids that as they grow up. Thanks for sharing your great comments.

  5. Zach Thalman October 7, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    I think that communication is something lawyers have to be really skilled at that. They have to talk to the client as well as the other person to figure out the terms and how to approach everything. I think it would really make things difficult if the lawyer wasn’t good at communicating. This is a job that is almost requiring good communication skills.

  6. Ian Johanson November 3, 2015 at 10:20 am

    Thanks for your post. I think some of the most important things you have listed are effective communication and learning how to be persuasive. I think a lot of people, me included, will look for a lawyer who is personable. Someone they can feel comfortable talking to, especially since they may have to share embarrassing information on how they got hurt, in an accident, etc. After gathering the evidence, no lawyer will get very far if he can’t use that evidence to make a compelling case.

  7. Jordan Jorgenson January 13, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    I agree that project management is a key aspect of a successful lawyer. It is one of the things that my uncles, both lawyers, are both sticklers for. They have told me more than once that being organized is the key to success, because when you are organized it is easy to prepare for anything. Quite frankly, I have to agree with them.

  8. Jade Brunet July 19, 2016 at 12:13 pm

    I find that being a DUI attorney would be an interesting job. I was looking to know what qualities a person would need to posses to have this career. It is good to know that one would need to have a commitment to lifelong learning. Constant improvement of knowledge and skills would only help a person in this field. Thanks for the information.

  9. Jade Brunet August 10, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    Each job has a different required skill set. I find it interesting that good lawyers need to be self motivated and committed to lifelong learning. My cousin is looking into choosing this as a career path and I think that she has the characteristics to make it work.

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