Three characteristics all great lawyers share

by Jim Durham /

To better understand what makes lawyers successful, I launched my own research project that included gathering qualitative data from lawyers who have a variety of traits. I talked to lawyers who were introverts and extroverts; I talked to high-powered litigators and understated business lawyers. I selected lawyers whose personalities and styles were very different, because I was tired of being told that attracting and growing clients was essentially a “personality contest.” I also checked with clients to make sure that the common characteristics I found in these lawyers were the characteristics that clients truly valued.

The results were unequivocal. Every client I have talked to said these three common characteristics are essential qualities of great lawyers: responsiveness, accessibility and initiation of contact.

Be Responsive

Being responsive is always part of a client’s description of a great lawyer. I have had clients tell me in client interviews that the importance of responsiveness should never be underestimated. One client said, “The importance of responsiveness cannot be overstated; as clients, we are almost irrationally consumed with our outside counsel’s responsiveness.”

Clearly, you cannot be a great lawyer if you are not responsive.

It is critical, however, to know what responsiveness means to a client. Most lawyers think it means returning phone calls within some prescribed period of time—perhaps the same day or within an hour or two. In fact, responsiveness really means:

  • Being available to clients at all times
  • Delivering documents (or answers or advice) when you say you will.

In the legal profession, you can be a good or “okay” lawyer by returning phone calls reasonably quickly. To be a great lawyer, you need to make yourself totally available.

Be Accessible

Accessibility means that the client can find you (or someone else who knows what is going on) whenever they need to, anytime, anywhere.

Many lawyers say they do not want clients to call them at home, at night or on weekends; many say they do not like the fact that clients expect them to constantly be available for email or calls. Others say they don’t want client interruptions while on a vacation or when spending time with their family. We all live with multiple obligations and need some down time. Unfortunately, to be an outstanding lawyer, you need to be available (or make clear arrangements for someone else with knowledge of the client to be available) to clients at all times.

When I was practicing law full time, I had one client that I represented on a variety of business matters. He not only asked me to do all of his legal work, but he also referred several new clients to me. I remember being sound asleep at home when he called once at 2 am. He was calling to tell me he was at the airport, and was having trouble getting his new nanny into the United States. (She was coming from Germany.)  He had not previously consulted me for immigration advice because he thought it was “no big deal.” Some lawyers would resent this interruption, but I was actually glad to get the call. I value a good night’s sleep as much as anyone, but I want clients calling me in that situation. If a client thinks you care enough to help solve a problem like this (and take a call at that hour), then you know you have developed the right kind of relationship with them.

Initiate Contact

One of the common characteristics of great lawyers is that they initiate contact with clients (and others in their network). Great lawyers do not wait for their phones to ring — they make other people’s phones ring; they do not wait for an email from clients, they send them useful emails. Great lawyers do not wait for clients to ask for help, great lawyers know enough about the client to be able to call and suggest specific ways in which they might help a client or prospect — even before they are asked.

Helping a client be more successful means being able to assist them in one or more of the following four ways. Great lawyers initiate contact with clients and prospects to discuss how to:

  • Help them make money
  • Help them save money
  • Help them sleep better
  • Make them look good to superiors, peers, or colleagues.

Hundreds of clients have confirmed in meetings with me that lawyers who can make these things happen are great lawyers. For every client you work with, whether you are an associate working with a middle manager, or a partner dealing with a General Counsel, you need to be thinking about what you can do to make one of these things happen. (The middle manager you work with might sleep better, get a bigger bonus, or look good to the boss if you find a way to manage the litigation better, come up with a novel strategy to close deals in less time, or if you just keep them informed, so they have answers when their supervisor calls with questions.)

All rainmakers share all of these qualities, among others. But getting these foundational behaviors in place is a great start.

Learn why authenticity is the key to successful lawyers.