Dear LiL: As a second-year call, I’m feeling the pressure to master many skills as I refine my style as a lawyer. Do you have any advice on where I should be focusing my efforts and how? Signed ~ Floundering but Focused
This is such an important question, and certainly you will get different answers from different lawyers depending on their own strengths or weaknesses or what they value in their own practice. For me, I can definitely say that over the years of practicing law I have learned there are three skills that are worth honing in order to become an effective lawyer. Frankly, as I reflect on all three, these skills don’t apply just to law but to life in general. They are, in no particular order of importance:
I want to start with listening because this skill is one we should all work on daily. Regardless of age or experience, I would challenge anyone to say that they have mastered this skill. It is also a very different skill than “hearing”. Hearing does not require you to absorb what the other person is saying and as a result we may not have a good or real understanding of the message being relayed by the person speaking. In our practice we have many people we must really listen to and connect with to ensure our success as a lawyer. I have listed just a few examples below:
First, and importantly, as a young lawyer you want to listen to the more senior lawyers you work with to ensure you are clearly understanding the task you are asked to complete. This will really make or break your credibility, especially if your work product does not reflect the instructions you were given. I get that sometimes the instructions can get lost in translation, but your job is to listen and to ask questions to clarify where necessary. As well, asking questions, in an effort to clarify, tells us that in fact you are listening.
Second, you need to listen to your client. This should go without saying but it is important to let them speak. To tell their story without you imposing your own view or interpretation of their facts.
Third, you need to listen to the witnesses in the courtroom. In life we have a habit of predicting what the person across from us might say next. We do it with our husbands, wives, children and colleagues just as a matter of course. That is just not a quality you want to take to the courtroom. There is nothing more important than listening to the witness testifying both in direct and in cross examination. Never assume you know what is going to come out of a witness’ mouth. Be patient during this process and it will pay off. One of my mentors used to remind me to slow down in the courtroom. This was great advice.
Fourth, you really must listen to the judge. This, of course, is crucial but so many times, when you are caught up in the testimony or argument, you really believe you know where the judge is going. My advice is to assume you do not know what is coming and just listen. Listen carefully, develop your response and then speak.
This is also a learned behavior. It does not come naturally to everyone but it will probably be one of the most important skills you can foster in your practice. Developing this skill will, I promise,, allow you more time to focus on the things that really matter, your work product. Time management and organizational skills are very closely linked, one feeding off the other. Being organized will lead to more effective time management and it will not only increase the quality of each project you tackle but allow you more time for more work. A disorganized practice is unproductive and can be frightening. It also increases the risk of missing something, for example, a significant deadline.
One particular motivator for becoming an organized lawyer is the extra time it will allow for your personal life. The more organized you are at the office the more personal time you will find you have available to you and that (as you already know from past blog posts) is a very good thing.
There are many resources available to help with organizational and time management skills. The CLE BC offers practical guidance on these skills.
Synonyms for this word include “detailed” and “exhaustive”. A thorough person attacks tasks very carefully with a keen eye to detail. They are conscientious in their approach. This skill is just so important no matter what area of law you practice. This is a skill easily lost when trying to meet deadlines with big workloads and to be honest, it is also the skill that can be lost over time. As a junior lawyer the last thing you want your client or senior lawyer to say to you is that you missed a significant fact, case, argument or provision in an agreement so work hard to be comprehensive in your work product, it will pay off!!
Thoroughness is, by its very nature, tied closely to listening and organizational skills. Work on mastering the group of them together and you will be well on your way to feeling more confident and becoming a more focused lawyer.