In the latest Bellwether report by LexisNexis, the lawyers who took part in the research were asked what makes a successful lawyer/law firm. Most frequently mentioned were the quality of legal expertise on offer at the firm and the ability of that firm’s lawyers to apply this expertise for the benefit of clients. No surprises there then.
However, when you speak to clients, most take this as a given and many, especially lay clients, cannot discern between good, mediocre or poor advice at the point of delivery. If the advice is technically unsound, it is often not until sometime in the future that this becomes apparent, e.g. when a contract fails to protect a client’s interests as intended.
So, what are the characteristics which define a successful lawyer and how can these be developed?
First and foremost, successful lawyers are the ones who understand the importance of ensuring that clients are treated with the highest levels of professionalism and courtesy. A client may not be able to discern a well-drafted contract from a sloppily compiled one, but they can certainly identify arrogance, bad manners, a lack of responsiveness, unclear or confusing advice, missed deadlines, and bills which are higher than expected.
Regular, structured feedback from both clients and your colleagues should alert you to any personal failings which are getting in the way of you delivering exceptional client care. To be honest, most firms’ recruitment and appraisal systems should weed out the worst offenders at an early stage, but it still amazes me how many lawyers I meet who are unaware of the negative effect their behaviour is having on client development and retention.
Good client service protocols and training should ensure that most such issues are being addressed, but coaching can play an important role, especially where a more senior lawyer is involved and where the sensitivity of the situation may require a discrete solution tailored to the individual’s needs.
Understanding the client’s business
Linked to the delivery of exceptional client care is an understanding of the client’s personal circumstances and environment, which in the case of a corporate client will be the company’s business and the industry in which it operates. Only by knowing what the client is trying to achieve, i.e. their goals, and the backdrop against which they are operating, i.e. market forces, can the lawyer provide pragmatic and proactive advice. Clients can recognise very quickly which lawyers really empathise with and understand their circumstances, and which are blagging it.
It goes without saying that lawyers should only accept instructions in areas for which they are suitably experienced; if one of your colleagues has better expertise than you, pass the instruction onto them. However, in an environment where work is often in short supply, many lawyers are tempted to take on tasks for which others in their firm may be better suited, just to fill their timesheets.
Successful lawyers tend to focus on specific types of work or sectors in order to build up a level of understanding and experience which gives them extra credibility and sets them apart from more ‘generalist’ lawyers who they are competing with for instructions.
Obtaining such insights comes over time and involves immersing oneself in an industry by reading trade publications/websites/blogs, attending conferences, joining industry associations, and generally networking with players in that industry. Leading the debate around issues affecting the industry, which may include commissioning research, writing thought leadership papers and speaking at events, is the culmination of a lawyer’s journey to becoming a recognised industry expert.
It goes without saying that a lawyer who is good at client care and is also a recognised industry expert is likely to be good at business development (BD).
No matter how technically able a lawyer is, unless they are able to grow their existing clients and win new ones for the firm, their career progression will be limited and partnership will probably remain a dream.
Building a network of potential clients as well as referrers, promoting your capabilities to this audience, and engineering meetings to sell your/the firm’s proposition are key attributes for a successful lawyer in today’s competitive legal markets.
Training for junior lawyers and coaching for more senior ones are best for building such BD skills.
In smaller practices, lawyers generally have limited management or leadership responsibilities.
In the largest firms, leadership skills become crucial especially at partner level where you could be leading a large group possibly dispersed across an international office network. In such cases, firms put in place highly structured training and assessment programmes to ensure that those lawyers best suited to leadership move into such roles. Often however, ‘politics’ will prevail and a square peg will be rammed into a round hole. In such situations, coaching is often deployed to make the best of the situation and to ensure that the leadership role is not too disruptive.
Generally, successful lawyers recognise the importance of managing and nurturing young talent in a profession where on-the-job mentoring is extremely important.
Finally, for those lawyers who are engaged in large, often cross-border, transactions or cases, project management skills are vital. Coordinating the inputs of dozens of the firm’s lawyers and third party specialists, dealing with the lawyers acting for the other side(s), and managing and reporting expenditure, requires skills that most lawyers do not possess. Building such skills requires specialist PM training.
Gone are the days when being a technically brilliant lawyer was enough to get you to the highest echelons of partnership. Without developing a full set of softer skills, building industry knowledge, growing your network, and learning to manage large, complex projects/transactions/cases your career could falter well before you get to the top.
Kevin Wheeler is a business consultant and coach with more than 20 years’ experience working in the legal sector. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org