Today’s authors are summer college interns from DLA Piper’s Chicago office.
Being good at anything is no easy feat. Becoming great is even harder. But, as we submit applications to law schools, we wanted to know what it would take to become truly great lawyers and thus interviewed a cross-section of DLA Piper’s employment law partners to prepare a psycho-biography of stardom for ourselves.
We have compiled our field research and analysis into a short quiz:
1. You’re on your way to a meeting with a client. Right before the meeting, do you:
A. Brush up on some publications that are relevant to that client’s business and write down new questions you have for them?
B. Reread your file on this matter?
C. Relax because you went to a top ten law school and have years of experience?
Good lawyers do B; great lawyers do A as well. Washington, DC partner Joseph Turzi admonished us to “read your clients’ trade publications and know their issues better than they know their own issues. This is your investment into the future.”
2. You’re writing an email to a client, answering their questions, do you:
A. Send your first draft knowing that clients often fail to immediately understand legal complexities so there will be a follow-up conference call?
B. Summarize your advice in plain English and in a clear format directly answering the questions?
C. Forward the research done by your associates with an FYI cover email?
Great lawyers are great explainers and teachers. Ian Kopelman, a partner in the Chicago office, states, “I don’t know if it’s a legal skill but you have to be able to speak and write in English rather than in legalese, so that a non-lawyer client is able to understand what you’re trying to express. Whether if it’s a legal analysis or a practical analysis based on the law, they have to be understand what you’re telling them.”
3. You are seeking additional work from a current client. Do you:
A. Schedule a lunch date with them for next week and try to get some quality time in?
B. Shoot them a quick email with some subtle hints?
C. Make a mental note to passive aggressively bring it up next time they call?
The best lawyers are “good people” and understand how to connect with people. San Diego partner Mary Dollarhide admonished us “ you must have face time and talk time with people.” Her view is straightforward: “Forget the notion that you can recede into your text messages and into your emails; that doesn’t do it.” Mary emphasized “It’s really important to make the investment in the people at each client because law is very much a people business.”
4. It’s your most exciting case of the year! To prepare, you should:
A. Don’t sleep for five days because this is a must-win scenario?
B. Relax now so your mind is fresh to improvise during trial?
C. Prepare your case thoroughly including familiarizing yourself with the opposition’s side?
Here, as elsewhere, the Aristotlean “golden mean” is what the best lawyers do. Chicago partner Marilyn Pearson puts it aptly when she says, “in my practice, what I try to do when I’m going to do an arbitration is I try to prepare my case and I try to prepare their case. I want to know what they are going to argue. I want to be able to argue their case as well or better than they can.”
5. You receive an assignment at work but are confused about how to go about it, do you:
A. Desperately research everything you can and work from there?
B. Make a list of the things you are confused about, find the person who gave you the assignment, and ask questions?
C. Start working on the assignment in hopes that you figure it out somewhere along the way?
In a career as demanding as the legal profession, it’s easy to feel that you have to know it all. Maria Rodriguez, a partner in the Los Angeles office, sagely counseled us that the best lawyers “ask questions. There are so many questions to always ask. I was the kid that asked too many questions; I am still that way. Always. So I think you come to each task with humility, you come to listen and you come to learn. And you learn by listening and asking questions.”
If any law school wants to utilize this quiz on its application, we are now ready. But, before we finish our collective assessment of greatness, indulge us each in a closing thought on our field research:
Alix: Throughout these interviews, what I found compelling was the overlap of responses. The most common response when asked about important character traits was how critical it is to be good to the people around you. Being good to coworkers and to clients was something almost everyone emphasized. It reminded me that — no matter how successful you are — at the end of the day you’re a person like everyone else. Along with this, some advice I also treasured was that at any point in life it is okay to ask questions and there is no shame in that. I will make sure to remember this advice and act on it throughout the remainder of undergrad, law school, and my legal career.
Amanda: Although many of the partners we interviewed espoused the importance of hard work and being analytical, almost all repeatedly advised us to be good listeners, build relationships and be humble. We will keep these skills in mind during our journey to the law profession as they are often overlooked or regarded as less important. For some, soft skills may not come easily. Yet, through these interviews, we saw that partners are still continuously reevaluating, developing and improving their soft skills by being conscientious and self-aware. We will do the same!
Lucas: It might seem counter-intuitive but, to be successful, one needs to be much more than just a great lawyer. In a world that is increasingly competitive, excellence with the legal aspects of the profession are expected rather than commended. To be truly successful, one needs to develop a wide range of skills. The difference maker today is just as much what you do outside of the office, as what you do within it. Something that spoke to me was this idea that success is proportional to the investment you make in yourself with your free time. In a world where there are so many competing priorities, going above and beyond is the new normal. Alix, Amanda, and I must adapt as such by investing in ourselves.