5 skills of a successful lawyer and how to hone them

We all want to be successful lawyers and work hard towards it. But we may not be aware of the skills required to be a successful lawyer. Even if we are aware, we may not know how to inculcate those skills. This post is an attempt to bring to you easy, practical and doable steps to hone the skills required to be a successful lawyer, or for that matter, any professional.

Of course, we all define success in different ways.

Are you considered a successful lawyer if you have a job at one of the top tier law firms?Or if you have been made a partner at your law firm in less than six years? Or if you are the number two in your legal department within ten years?

How about measuring success of a lawyer with the amount of money he earns? Or the number of clients he nurtures? Or the number of times he has appeared in high-profile headline grabbing cases?

However you may define your own success yardsticks, you will need to inculcate and hone certain essential skills which will pave your way towards becoming a successful lawyer. You may already know what they are, but do you know if you have them or not? Do you know how to nurture them, inculcate them and polish them?

I don’t consider myself successful, yet, but I have noticed that successful lawyers all have certain common skills. But no one talks about how to achieve them and give away their secret recipe for success. Or may be no one has asked them how to learn and hone those skills, From my years of interaction with highly successful lawyers, I have noted a few useful nuggets. Let me decode them for you.

successful lawyer

Commercial awareness

In today’s age, you cannot be an effective and successful lawyer without the knowledge of current development in world, national and local business along with a robust understanding of basic finance principles. I now understand why we had to study Economics for two semesters in my first year of law school and in hindsight, I wish I had paid attention then, but economics, finance and commercial awareness go hand-in-hand with law. If you are an in-house counsel and you do not comprehend what your Finance Manager means when he says ‘top line’ or ‘bottom line’, or if you are an M&A lawyer and you have trouble reading financial reports of a company during due diligence, or if you are a litigating lawyer and yet do not understand the stack of documents comprising of invoice, gate pass, lorry receipt, transporters way bill to be able to prove delivery of goods or how to calculate the quantum of damages to seek in a commercial dispute, you have a long way to go before success meets you. Sorry to be blunt there, friend.

There’s nothing to despair if you feel you need to learn this skill. Few ways how you can do this are –

  1. Do a short online course on accounting from the likes of Udemy, Coursera and Edx.
  2. Ditch the sports page and scan the business page of the newspaper first every morning
  3. Make friends with your Finance Manager (or a CA friend) and seek their help every time you come across a term you don’t understand. I have developed my commercial awareness majorly by befriending all the Finance Managers I work with and they are used to receiving texts from me, asking all sorts of questions. It helps that I am honest about my intentions and don’t pussyfoot around the fact that I need to learn something from them. Everyone is happy to help – is my firm belief.
  4. Follow some well-known websites in this space like A Junior VC or subscribe to ET Prime or The Ken to keep abreast with current affairs.
successful lawyer

Resilience and commitment

While we are talking about how to be a successful lawyer, but let’s be very mindful of the fact that occasional failure is going to be a part and parcel of our professional journey. It’s during those time that we will have to be resilient enough to tide over the bad times and come back stronger. Only a commitment towards our work can ensure strong resilience, so these two definitely go hand-in-hand for all successful lawyers.

To cite a personal example, I had to prepare an urgent draft for a critical issue which had to be sent out within a deadline. I worked diligently and sincerely and produced what was in my opinion, a stellar document. I had been working from late evening on a Friday through half of Saturday and hoped to meet the Saturday evening deadline. But when I produced it before my boss, he flew off the handle. He pointed out a very basic flaw in my understanding which had led to a completely wrong drafting. My heart sank and my tears were threatening to break barriers. But I knew I had only two hours left for a complete redo and no time to waste. I got down to work and overhauled the entire five page draft, edited it thrice along with my boss and managed to send it out by 10 pm. So even when mistakes happen, learn from it to not commit it again.

Now let’s see how you can inculcate this skill. To be honest, this is more of a trait than a skill, but I believe everything can be learned if one puts his mind to it.

  1. Practise intellectual honesty every waking moment. What I mean is at whatever stage of your career you are, always be honest about your intellectual capability, mistake, limitation and flaws. What it does, apart from making you an authentic human being and conscientious professional, is to let you be aware of your shortcomings in moments of failure. This in turn, helps you to bounce back to success. Have you ever seen a successful lawyer wallow in despair over the loss of a case? They gather their learnings and move on to better results.
  2. Sit down during a quiet moment, reflect on your professional life and write down in a journal what motivates you to be a lawyer. This will be your commitment mantra when you need to remind yourself why you are working so hard at being a successful lawyer.
  3. Observe people you admire and note various instances when their sincerity and commitment to work come to fore. Make use of the time when you sit behind in a senior lawyer’s conference or a crowded courtroom and look at how he works and accomplishes tasks. There are valuable lessons to be plucked from such times.
successful lawyer

Attention to detail

If there’s one single skill that I want you all to take away from this post, it would be the ability to be attentive to minute details. As lawyers, your drafts are always under heavy scrutiny and any error, however minor or inadvertent, totally mars the experience.

It’s also your job to go through pages after pages of seemingly boring information hoping to find that one piece of fact which will turn around your client’s case. Remember that Suits episode in Season 2 where Donna lost her job over a single memo?

This skill is a little hard to learn if you do not have a natural inclination towards it, but it’s definitely doable if you follow the below mentioned points –

  1. Draft as a writer, edit as an editor, review as an observer. It basically means that you have to don three different hats while working on the same draft and look at it afresh from varying perspectives while reviewing it. Usually all grammatical errors are noticed if this is done effectively. Thank you, sir, for giving me this tip.
  2. Make note taking a habit. Take copious amounts of notes when dealing with lots of papers, as I have said in an earlier post. If you write down everything, chances are less that you will miss anything pivotal. Carry your notebook everywhere. If you are a stationary junkie like me, this will be a very pleasurable habit to inculcate.
  3. Do anything to increase concentration – be it a ten-min meditation every morning or listening to soothing music while working. Concentrating well will help you spot issues in a draft immediately.
successful lawyer

Ability to manage people

Teamwork is one of the most sought-after skill in any job requirement. As lawyers, we are in a people-centric profile, whether or not we work independently, or as part of a law firm or in a in-house legal department. From dealing with your peers, bosses, juniors, managers from other business functions, clients, judges, filing clerks, court master, other side’s counsel in a negotiation – your success as a lawyer will largely depend on how good a people manager you are. Have you noticed how some lawyers, even first generation ones, have become successful in building a legal practice from scratch with dedicated clientele or how the business team prefers to go to a particular in-house counsel with all their issues or how a Judge, who was seemingly against you at the beginning of your argument have passed a favourable order at the end? The key is, my friend, great people skills. Let’s see how to be amazing at effectively managing people around you.

  1. First of all, be pleasant. No one likes a cocky, arrogant and aggressive people pusher. Show kindness and respect to all, including the man who serves your morning coffee at your desk. Well, you might point out that a notable few successful lawyers are not pleasant at all, but do you want to be known as a wonderful and successful lawyer or a horrible and successful lawyer?
  2. Make an attempt to connect with everyone you meet. Inquire after them, know about their family, extend help if needed, even if you have to go a few extra miles. This is what is called ‘networking’. I always thought I was bad at networking till I realised that I don’t have to be a yes-man or thrust my business card in the face for effective networking; all I need to do is help others. Keith Ferrazi’s book ‘Never Eat Alone‘ is an excellent read on how to effectively and successfully network.
  3. The best ego state to be in a workplace, especially if you want to be an effective people manager, is a combination of ‘positive nurturing parent‘ and ‘adult‘. This comes from a concept of psychoanalysis called ‘Transactional Analysis’ and you can read more about it here. Dr. Thomas Harris’ book called “I’m Ok – You’re Ok.” is an excellent read if you want to delve deep into this topic.
  4. Follow the simple mantra of “Never do to others which you do not want others to do to you.” It will vastly improve the way you behave with people around you, especially if you lead a team. It’s very easy to slip into the role of an all-powerful demanding, arrogant boss but it takes a very different mindset to be the kind of boss who is admired, loved and respected by his team members.
  5. Keep the needs of others before you. That means the needs of clients, business teams, colleagues, boss, juniors – all come before your need. When people will see you go the extra mile for them, they will do the same for you when the time comes.
people skill

Ability to manage time

The last skill, which to my mind, is extremely valuable for a successful lawyer is time management. Lawyers are an overworked bunch of individuals and the stories of first year law firm associates spending nights after nights in their office are actually true. Even as you climb the experience ladder, you are always short of time. Solicitors running around in court during the day and drafting till late in the evening, arguing counsels hopping from one court to another, switching on and off cases instantly from 10-4 and then conducting conferences till late nights, in-house counsels staying up late trying to close a critical agreement or managing an ongoing high-stake litigation – all lawyers hardly have any work-life balance. It’s no wonder that so many of us burn out in this constant pursuit of excellence. Let’s put some tried and tested methods (by yours truly) to practice.

  1. Wake up an hour earlier than you do now. Use that one hour to recharge yourself, do things you like the most, take care of your health, pursue a hobby – anything which is totally personal. I have been waking up at 4.30 am every day since the first week of lockdown and that’s how I am managing to write for this website.
  2. Take short breaks frequently. Usually, when we are short of time and are racing to complete a task, you would think it as counterproductive to take any break. However, your brain is usually fatigued at such times. Even closing your eyes, taking a few deep breathes and listening to a stress-busting music for five minutes help you focus sharper and better on work.
  3. Learn to say no. Create boundaries and strictly enforce them. This might be a tad difficult to pull off as a junior lawyer but as your grow, you will recognise what works most for you. You must learn to control the urge to immediately hit reply to any email, if non-critical, the moment you see it, whatever be the time. Contrary to popular belief, you do not earn much brownie points if you send emails at 2.30 am and instead, do irreparable damage to a good night’s sleep. Never ever schedule to send an email to your boss at odd hours. Chances are, he will be more irritated than impressed.
  4. The biggest derailment to time management is social media and mobile entertainment. Sometime in November last year, I realised that I was achieving nothing through my incessant scrolling of Instagram and Facebook. So I went on a self-imposed social media strike by deleting the apps from my phone and vowed to only open them through browser once every week. I am still going strong on this because I am amazed at the amount of time I unlocked for myself. I do tend to slip up when I am in the middle of an interesting series on Netflix (Locked Up is so much better than Orange in the new Black) but I always watch an hour or so after my toddler has gone off to sleep, so that my productive day hours are not used up. Find what works for you and stick to it. Delete those apps or install a time-checking app to curb your internet usage – but do something proactive today.
  5. To Do list always helps. Have only three items – one big and two smaller – and tick them all off at the end of the day. If you have time to spare, tackle another small item or do some research on a big item but I have noticed that creating a concrete, doable To Do list every morning helps. Being the compulsive list maker that I am, I maintain a master list (with all pending work), a weekly list (all the immediate and near immediate deliverable) and a daily list (top three) at the same time.
time management

Now that you have finished reading this long list, are you ready to take that first step towards being a successful lawyer? Which one of the skills would you like to hone first?

Are there any more points that you would like to add?

Do you want me to address a topic that you have in mind?

Feel free to say so in the comment section or email me at [email protected].

If you are enjoying reading The Five Things Checklist, consider subscribing so that you never miss out when a new post is published.



If you would like your friends to read this post, please share with them easily using the following buttons