What makes for a good lawyer?
We’ve all spent years in law school and since pondering this simple question. Yet, there’s not one clear, widely agreed-upon answer.
There are a few accepted metrics. Billable hours, pedigree, and experience at big-name firms often come to mind. And for many attorney positions, technical skills are table stakes.
But as a hiring manager and former general counsel, I have interviewed, hired, and managed many professionals. And I can decisively confirm that technical skills, once established, are almost never a reason to make a final hiring decision. They’re not what makes a good lawyer good.
Instead, I — and I’ve found that many of my colleagues also — focus on a handful of “soft” skills, human qualities that don’t make an appearance on law school syllabi. After all, we aren’t lawyers in a vacuum, and no amount of technical skills can help an attorney who lacks these innate professional qualities.
The ones I often focus on are:
Creativity and innovation
I crowdsourced this question in the hopes of getting more-complete answers and more-rounded perspectives. I found a range of perspectives, but all, more or less, focusing on soft skills rather than technical expertise in the law.
Many of the answers I received highlighted the importance of just having good interpersonal social skills:
Lenor Marquis Segal, senior counsel – global litigation, at Hitachi ABB Power Grids, said, “Customer service! Client focus! Listening ears! Intuition. Ability to see forest and trees simultaneously. Attention to detail. Big picture view. Work ethic. Professional ethics! Sense of humor. The human soul.” She explained, “Lawyers are very personal! Think about past relationships with counsel and decide what qualities you are looking for personally for a functional and successful engagement.”
Talar Herculian Coursey, general counsel at Vista Ford Lincoln, similarly noted: “When I was recruiting in private practice, I looked for someone with good eye contact, personable and humble.”
Devora L. Lindeman, partner at Greenwald Doherty LLP, explained, “Communication skills, do they really listen, do I think they will interact well with clients, can they think on their feet, did they prepare enough for the interview that they know something about me and our firm, are they passionate about employment law. To name a few.”
Likewise, Neil Greenbaum, partner at Greenbaum Law Firm, explained, “Competence (which, to me, doesn’t mean experience, but ability to learn) and somebody with whom I would like to work and could develop a rapport with. Pedigree is irrelevant.”
Others look for candidates who come informed, having done their homework as a job applicant:
Annie Little, attorney career coach at JD Nation, said, “Although I don’t hire lawyers, I do help them get hired. One pattern I’ve observed is that employers are looking for “informed enthusiasm.” In other words, they want to feel that the candidate understands the company’s business, culture, and overall industry — and that the candidate is excited about and demonstrated their ability to help the company succeed.”
Others sought more fundamental professional skills, like strengths in critical thinking and the ability to stay cool under pressure:
Critical thinking: David Fryman, principal attorney at Fryman PC, shared, “Critical thinking is crucial for me. I find a lawyer that can wrap their head around complicated legal issues will usually be a good fit for my team. Most other skills can be taught.” He explained, “I find out the kind of cases they worked on and get them to talk about them in detail. I also use writing samples because if you can’t write well, you can’t think well.”
Comfortable when things get messy: Andy Dale, general counsel, and head of strategic partnerships at Alyce said, “I like to look for: being comfortable when things get messy or unclear, and curiosity about work and life.” Likewise, Colin Levy, legal counsel at Lookout, “Communication skills, collaborative temperament, fluent in the language of business.”
Though the responses seem to vary at first glance, the truth is, they generally do cover soft skills, qualities that define us as humans before they define us as lawyers. Or, as Christon Halkiotis, criminal defense attorney, explained: “Common sense, ability to problem solve, and good instincts. “You can learn the rest.”
We too often think of being as a lawyer as being completely separate from being a human being — that you can be a good lawyer but a terrible person, or a terrible lawyer but a good person. Both of those are definitely true (and I’m sure we all know both types), the truth is the things that make good lawyers are not all that different from what makes us good people, or good employees in other professions.
Even if you don’t do your homework, being a good person will get you far — in life, and in law.
Olga V. Mack is the CEO of Parley Pro, a next-generation contract management company that has pioneered online negotiation technology. Olga embraces legal innovation and had dedicated her career to improving and shaping the future of law. She is convinced that the legal profession will emerge even stronger, more resilient, and more inclusive than before by embracing technology. Olga is also an award-winning general counsel, operations professional, startup advisor, public speaker, adjunct professor, and entrepreneur. She founded the Women Serve on Boards movement that advocates for women to participate on corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies. She authored Get on Board: Earning Your Ticket to a Corporate Board Seat and Fundamentals of Smart Contract Security. You can follow Olga on Twitter @olgavmack.