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What is a good lawyer and how do I become one?

defining a good lawyer

As we know from pretty much all of pop culture, the reputation for lawyers is somewhat tarnished. They are commonly perceived as arrogant, heartless, and money-hungry. A lawyer will do anything to win if the price is right.

But as someone who works in the legal industry, you know that’s not a fair assessment.

In this post, we will speak about what it means to be a good lawyer — beyond passing the bar and being competent.

We’ll also touch on some strategies for building a positive reputation and how to leave your clients happy.

Some stereotypes of a typical lawyer

This demonized caricature of the lying lawyer comes from a few sources.

The world of legislation does have many stressors. Attorneys must handle difficult situations and work with defendants they might not agree with. Especially for criminal defense attorneys, a lawyer is obligated to do their best work and protect their client’s rights for every case, every time.

Some lawyers are arrogant. Some do their best to make other people feel inferior. There are even some attorneys who really do fit a lot of the stereotypes we’re talking about.

However, making such general conclusions is not fair.

Common unfair stereotypes include:

  • All attorneys have unreasonably high prices. There is a perception that lawyers are payment-oriented only, and are filthy rich as a result. Funny enough, a lot of lawyers work on a no win/no compensation basis, meaning they only earn a percentage of the sum if they win the case. Lots of others work in public defender offices, struggle as junior associates, or run private firms making a modest living.
  • Lawyers are not honest. They lie often and will do anything to win. This stereotype has been built due to occurrences such as the O.J. Simpson case, where the lawyer protects people who likely committed the crime of which they were accused. People think that a lawyer who defends someone like that must have to bend the truth (at best) or outright lie to win. The thing is, lawyers are obligated to do their best work. What would the alternative be? It would be much worse for attorneys to routinely throw their clients to the wolves, wouldn’t it? Defendants have constitutional rights, and attorneys are there to make sure those rights stay intact.
  • A cheap attorney is a bad one. It is commonly thought that if their services don’t cost thousands of dollars, the outcome of the case will be poor. Many people think that getting a “free” lawyer from the public defender’s office means you will lose your case. In reality, the reason that lawyers work for low pay in these cases is because legal representation is an important right. They care about access to justice, and most will do their absolute best for every client.

Remember, attorneys are around at unfortunate times

One crucial point to make before going forward: lawyers typically appear in a person’s life when they are going through something complicated, like a divorce, death of a loved one, or a car accident.

Legal matters can take a while to be resolved too, causing additional frustration to the individual. A sticky case that drags on and on can be miserable for everyone involved.

All of this builds up to an immediate negative reaction to the attorney. They are associated with the emotional, frustrating, often expensive legal process, so they get blamed for a lot of those negative feelings.

That said, the lawyer that a client chooses to work with can make the situation way better or way worse depending on whether or not they have interpersonal skills.

An attorney that cares will make all the difference in helping you not only with their services, but also as additional moral support.

One of the good ones

First and foremost, a “good lawyer” shouldn’t be seen as an exception to the rule.

We often hear people refer to an attorney who is pleasant, kind, and truly cares about their job as one of the good ones.

This, of course, implies that all other attorneys are not good ones.

Consider, though, that most people who work with a lawyer don’t have much experience navigating the legal system. They’ve likely never hired an attorney before, and they hope that they won’t have to again.

When that type of client has a good experience, they don’t reevaluate their assumptions about lawyers. Instead, they presume that they got lucky and found “one of the good ones.”

If you asked the average person to describe a good lawyer, what do you think they would say?

Based on the stereotypes, you might assume that people define a good lawyer as someone who goes out of their way to help their client. They think outside of the box and do more than they have to without charging more for it. Definitely, a great lawyer takes on lots of pro bono cases. He or she helps the good guys and refuses to work with those who are guilty.

But these things don’t make a lawyer more effective, more likely to win, or even more ethical.

Let’s talk about what really makes you one of the good ones.

What really makes a good lawyer?

Professionally, we respect others who have honed their skills and know their way around the legal system.

Clients don’t care about that. They assume that you’re competent, and that’s as much as they need to know. Being good at your job is just a basic requirement.

The things that make you stand out as a good lawyer are your soft skills. Just like a doctor’s bedside manner or a CEO’s ability to inspire, your presence and people skills will be the most impactful pieces of your client experience.

Here’s where to focus.

#1: Empathy

To understand how important empathy is, think back to your last terrible customer service experience. It probably went something like this:

You were greeted with an automated phone system that forced you through a bunch of sorting options. When you finally got through that, you ended up stuck on hold. Finally, you talk to somebody, but it’s obvious that they don’t understand your problem and don’t even care enough to try to understand. You got transferred to someone else, and they transferred you to someone else, and eventually you got half of a solution.

The problem with that whole experience was a lack of empathy. If that customer service department cared and understood how you felt, you would have been treated with more respect and gotten your problem solved faster.

That’s true for legal services, too.

Simply put, empathy is the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. If you consider how your client feels and thinks, that’s empathy at work.

An empathetic attorney is understanding and realistic. Your clients hired you because they don’t know how to navigate the legal system, so you should expect them to make mistakes and need help. With empathy, you’ll waste less energy being frustrated with people, and they’ll feel like it’s easier to trust you.

#2: Communication skills

Being able to clearly get your point across certainly helps in the courtroom. Beyond the bench, though, communication is one of the most important skills you can build.

Knowing when and what to say to your client can work wonders. Like in any relationship, whether personal or professional, being able to communicate is crucial and makes the bond stronger.

Plus, your communication skills make you more effective at working with opposing counsel, help you lead your firm, and more.

One of the most important things about communication is that it must go both ways. That’s why you need this next skill, too:

#3: The ability to listen

Being unapproachable is another lawyer stereotype, and if you’re difficult to reach, you’re perpetuating that idea.

Attorneys are busy, but this doesn’t justify making it impossible for clients to reach you to discuss their case. If you need to use technology, legal support, or some other tool to be more accessible, do it.

Among other things, listening is a way to show your client that you care.

When you meet with your client or get on the phone with them, really listen to what they have to say. Ask questions, relate to their situation on a personal level, and see what they are feeling and thinking.

This habit will encourage your clients to open up more. The better you are at listening, the less effort you’ll have to expend to get your clients to be honest with you.

Meanwhile, ask your clients for feedback — and put it to use. Strive to be better and you will be. Creating a system for actually implementing this kind of feedback will pay off greatly in the future.

#4: Transparency

Transparency doesn’t mean that you tell your clients all about everything. Obviously, that would be a violation of attorney-client privilege in a lot of situations, right? What it means is that when there’s something your client should know, you’re open and honest about it.

Clients shouldn’t get the feeling that you’re trying to obscure your practices. People like mystery in the movies, but not in their legal proceedings.

For example, are you transparent about your prices? Nobody likes to get hit with a bill that’s a lot higher than expected.

A client should know how to get in touch with you, what’s going on with their case, and what to expect out of the process. If you’re not going to log any hours on their case this week because you’re waiting for something, it’s okay to explain that. Knowing is better than wondering, and it’s easier to build trust in a transparent relationship.

As an added bonus, being transparent with your clients helps reduce friction when it comes time to send the bill. They know what to expect, and if they aren’t sure about something, they feel confident that they can ask you about it and get an honest answer. You get paid faster and they feel better about writing the check. It’s a win-win.

#5: Love for the job

The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg believed that a lawyer’s job is to make people’s lives just a bit easier.

That’s something that a lot of legal professionals can get passionate about.

Even if that’s not your motivation, we hope you truly love your career. Your enthusiasm for the work goes a long way towards making you “one of the good ones.”

It’s nearly impossible to do something exceptionally well if you don’t love it with your whole heart. In any profession, having passion for what you do motivates you to do your best.

People can see passion, especially when working closely with someone. That positive feeling is contagious. Allow your peers and your clients to see that you love your job and they’re a lot more likely to love working with you.

What if you used to love your career, but you lost the spark somewhere along the way? There are ways to get that loving feeling back. Check out our free eBook for tips and guidance to help you find joy in your career again.

Why does any of this matter?

You might be asking yourself why any of this matters if you’ve passed the bar and are a skilled, competent attorney.

Being a great attorney means being a decent person. While that’s a reward within itself, it also opens your doors for new clients. Building a good name for yourself is crucial for an attorney’s career, and it can also help all lawyers everywhere to gain a better reputation.

Plus, all of the skills we talked about in this article will help you enjoy your job more. Work will feel easier and you may even find it more fulfilling.

Author

  • Rachel is a writer with a passion for storytelling. She has worked with a broad scope of topics, including legal news, women’s rights, personal injury law, and trends that may affect one’s practice.