What will make a lawyer effective in court?
Experience and specialization arent always the most important qualities for a successful lawyer
Surprisingly few clients have the training to evaluate a lawyers performance, whether its related to a transaction, document or trial. So when you ask most corporate counsel how they go about selecting the right trial lawyer for a specific matter, youll probably hear terms such as specialist, experienced and niche. These are perfectly acceptable answers. Deep experience with specific industries, products and even courtrooms, knowing the ropes, has always been considered the litigation gold standard.
But if you ask the same clients, immediately after a significant positive outcome, what made the trial lawyer effective and successful, youll hear a different story. Theyll likely tell you that it wasnt as much about background as backbone. After years in the courtroom, Ive made a science of identifying the key traits of the most effective trial lawyers. Some Ive argued with, some against. Although they all differ in age, gender, education and personality, there are some common characteristics. My four-plus decades of front-line observation have taught me that the most effective trial lawyersthe kind who thrive in any courtroom, with any client, in any mattershare these five key traits.
4. Curiosity. The benefit of deep specialization in a narrow field of law or business often comes at the expense of broader perspective. Psychologists call it the curse of knowledge. Ive found that the most effective litigators resist the narrow confines of deep specialties and maintain a relentless curiosity about the world they live in. They possess an insatiable curiosity beyond law for a variety of topics and life experiences in science, art, psychology, physics and even pop culture. They have obscure hobbies and eclectic tastes. They know that solutions to courtroom challenges often come from the most unlikely places.
Juries and judges are rarely expert specialists. They are, by design, non-expert representatives of society at large. In general, courtroom communications are most effective if theyre on a fifth-grade level. This can often frustrate specialists who struggle to relate their language and thinking to lay audiences. Relentless curiosity not only leads to innovative approaches and solutions, but also keeps the job of litigation continually fresh and exciting.
5. Competitive Spirit. Choosing the last trait from dozens of remaining possibilities was difficult. In the end, I considered carefully not just traits, but true motivations. What drives an effective trial lawyer? Ultimately I settled on the only true driver: an innate competitive spirit. Effective litigators tend to take on every matter, large or small, as their must-win Super Bowl moment. To this trial lawyer type, there are no routine trials, meetings or even moments. They thrive on the thrill of the challenge, not just the legal outcome.
Competitive spirit comes in many flavors. But effective trial lawyers consider beating their opponents as secondary to the relentless pursuit of finding the simple, elegant trial solution. One trial lawyer calls it his obvious surprise, an insight that is immediately understood and familiar. Another calls it the one simple thing that can sway a jury, change the conversation and produce the right outcome.
This type of fire in the belly never goes out. It helps trial lawyers take on the difficult cases with fearlessness, focus and seemingly boundless energy. These types are at their best when a case seems unwinnable. Just try and tell them that something is impossible. They cant help simmering on your matter 24/7, on the soccer field, driving in traffic or at 4:00 in the morning. For clients, its added value. For opponents, its an unfair advantage.
Many factors go into choosing the right trial lawyer, and conflicts and costs can limit your options. Of course experience matters, but it is far from the only measure. After decades in the trenches, Ive found that the most effective lawyers dont just lean on their experience. They use it to enhance their five key traits and continually improve their craft.