The one thing you didn’t learn in law school

by Jim Durham /

Early in our careers as lawyers we are taught what it takes to be called a great lawyer within a law firm: excellent research and writing skills, good negotiation and organization skills, consistent demonstration of scholarly insight, and a thoughtful (dare I say “innovative”) approach to solving legal problems. While there is certainly value in being recognized by your colleagues as a savvy technical lawyer, a terrific advocate, or a superb writer, these are—or should be—the skills of all lawyers!

To achieve true greatness, you must do all of these things, and more. You need to understand what makes clients see you as a great lawyer.

The Client Experience

In order to truly be successful in this profession, what do lawyers need to learn beyond what is taught in law school and in the early years of practice? The answer seems too simple to be true, but it is the right answer: Lawyers need to learn that it is the overall experience clients have working with them that will determine their success.

Lawyers in private practice exist to serve clients—not to serve the firms in which they are employed, not to feed their egos, not to satisfy intellectual curiosity, and not to fill their bank accounts.

Like a doctor, plumber, architect, or teacher, we are expected to know the substantive information, rules, and laws of our profession; we are expected to possess the skills needed to do what the profession demands. But it is how we treat the people we represent, and the attitudes we bring to our work, and the value clients perceive in our relationship that will determine whether we are great lawyers.

So, if our success really flows from what clients think about us, it would be good to have a clear understanding of what impresses them. We need to know what makes clients hire us, what causes them to continue to work with us, what motivates them to give us additional work, and what makes them refer other people to us.

The Client Relationship

Let’s be honest, whether someone has practiced law for many years or they are new to the legal profession, their future success will be tied closely to their ability to attract, serve, keep, and grow business. Achieving success and a reputation as a great lawyer does not come from clever marketing; it is not about your law school class rank or your LSAT scores or how smart you are. It is about your skills in dealing with clients.

Great lawyers need to have every client say: “My lawyer is the best lawyer with whom I have ever worked.

Not every person who has passed a bar exam has the innate skills to be a great lawyer, but almost anyone can learn them — and they must. The communication, relational, and attitudinal skills that are essential to being a great lawyer are just as important as being able to name the most relevant Supreme Court decisions.

The Client Trust

What is my definition of success as a lawyer?  You are a great lawyer when, in addition to knowing the law, you have become a lawyer that people trust above all others, and you are the person to whom they turn when they (or people they know) have any kind of problem.

If we, as lawyers, can simply “do unto clients as we would have other professionals do unto us,” we would all be great lawyers. Even better, apply what we call The Platinum Rule which says: “do unto others as they would have done unto them.” Now that is truly transformative.

Learn why authenticity is the key to successful lawyers.