Legal careers are diverse things. You might want to be the lead partner of your own law firm, you might want to assist a non-profit organisation on their health and safety, or you might focus on the needs of a single client.
Divorce, property, tax, crime and everything in between: the life and career of no two lawyers are the same.
Yet, despite this immense diversity, there are a few commonalities between all law careers.
What’s more, successful law careers are particularly similar. As someone who has been a London-based divorce solicitor for years, I know exactly what traits people need to succeed.
1. Focus on Detail
Building a case means building up a list of details which prove your client’s narrative. What’s more, you need to find the details within your details — the holes in your narrative — so that you can successfully address these.
Finding the details which no-one else can is called “discovery” and it’s what most of being a lawyer consists of. Paperwork is followed by paperwork which is followed by more paperwork.
It’s not as glamorous as is often depicted on TV, but it’s why lawyers get paid: they are able to discover the things which others can’t.
2. Think More
It’s one thing to find an erroneous detail in a stack of paperwork; it’s another thing to know what it means and whether it’s relevant. Each piece of information you discover needs to be cross-referenced with the law itself.
Remember that the law is “applied” to cases. In other words, it’s not always obvious in the real world whether a detail fits a certain kind of legal precedent or not. In fact, your opponent’s job is often to argue that it does not.
You will win a case by making your case better than the opposition. That means finding more details, but it also means thinking harder about what the details mean.
3. Be Confident
A lot of a lawyer’s work involves convincing people of things. Sometimes you’ll be convincing your client that yours is the correct course of action to take, sometimes you’ll be convincing intermediaries that you need something done, and sometimes you’ll be convincing a judge or a jury of your case.
Whatever it is, you’ll need confidence to do it. This can be challenging for some lawyers.
After all, having a strong analytical mind which can spot details and having great confidence with strong speaking skills are two different things. The fact is, though, being a lawyer requires both.
3. Know Yourself
Being a lawyer means putting yourself in a position where you are willing to defend another person legally.
However, only you can say for certain whether you feel that this person should be defended. As such, you will need a strong sense of morality and self in order to decide which clients and cases to take on.
Plato comes in handy here. “Know yourself” is an idea strongly associated with him that — he believed — was at the heart of philosophy. It should be at the heart of law as well. Only you can know if taking on someone’s case or not taking on someone’s case is a good idea.
4. Avoid Passion
Following on from Plato, it was Aristotle who said that “the law is reason free from passion”.
While you might need to rely on your instincts and moral code when deciding to take a case, you cannot rely on those things while practising the law itself. You need a certain level of detachment so that you can see the facts clearly.
Passion is needed to avoid bias — an enemy of law which comes in many forms. Confirmation bias happens when you already looking for evidence to prove an argument before you’ve considered other evidence.
The gambler’s fallacy happens when you imagine that the events of the past will somehow affect the future — the reality is that dice have no memory.
Projection bias happens when you imagine that others feel the same way that you do.
Negativity bias happens when your mind focuses too much on the negative details than the positive ones. The list goes on.
To avoid passion means to avoid biases like these. If you can manage that, you’ll be practicing the law correctly.
5. Stay Motivated
Lawyers are often self-employed. A lot of the time, the work involves setting up your own practice and jumping from client to client.
It’s hard work and it’s even harder to do it if no-one is going to make you. Rather, you need to be extremely active in order to make sure that you have the clients you need to keep your business ticking over.
People who pursue self-employment often do so because they love the freedom of it. However, to create that freedom for yourself, you have to work very hard.
6. Talk the Talk
When people say that lawyers speak a different language, they’re not wrong. As well as the term “legalese” (which refers to the dense jargon of legal documents), there is the frequent use of Latin terms to describe certain aspects of the law.
So, whether it’s because you’re de facto doing something pro bono or because someone’s ad hoc method is malum in se, knowing how to understand the language of the law is hugely important.
A lot of this will go hand in hand with studying the law, but it helps to make a conscious effort to understand how terms are used and to use them correctly yourself.
7. Keep at It
80 per cent of success is showing up — the other 20 per cent is sticking with it. You will undoubtedly face obstacles in your legal career, and the thing that will make you succeed is returning to those obstacles over and over until you overcome them.
Return to that same paperwork until you make your discovery. Chase up that same client until they respond. Bulk up that same case with more evidence until you’re certain you can win.
If you continue to knock at the doors, they will eventually open. No-one wants to work with a lawyer who will give up when everyone else does. You get those extra clients by going the extra mile.