Getting to Being a Great Lawyer

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Being a great lawyer is a concept laden with subjectivity. Some may describe great lawyers as those that get results for their clients. Others may say that great lawyers are measured by their reputation in their professional community. Still others may focus on a lawyer’s professionalism, ethics, and integrity.

My intention with this post is not do diminish the importance of any of these. Nor do I wish to imply that greatness is something easily achieved by following some simple steps. Of course it is not. Furthermore, greatness something that most of us will never achieve.

However, from a “law firm as businesses” perspective, Jim Collin’s Good To Great, provides perhaps some of the most objective measures of understanding how to get to great and is required reading for entrepreneurs, as well as a top business book lawyers should read.

Your Law Firm’s Hedgehog Concept

Admittedly, the research from Good To Great focused on corporations. However, I have found the lessons to be applicable on an individual level. Essential to getting from good to great is identifying your hedgehog concept, which can be broken down into three components:

  • Passion
  • Being the Best
  • Economic Engine

What Are You Deeply Passionate About?

This first question is actually much more difficult than you may initially suspect. Are you even deeply passionate about practicing law? From my experiences with talking to lawyers, many lawyers would answer this question in the negative. That is, if they ever stopped to think about it. The truth is that, as it is in other professions and industries, for many lawyers, being a lawyer is just a job.

Now don’t misunderstand me, or what I believe is the message of Good To Great. I’m not saying that viewing your career as a lawyer as just a job is inherently wrong. I’m not that self-righteous (however, I’m sure that you know plenty of lawyers who are). What I would suggest, and what I believe Mr. Collin’s study suggests, is that it will ultimately prevent you from being a great lawyer.

In addition to asking yourself whether you are passionate about being a lawyer generally, you should also ask yourself whether you are passionate about your area(s) of practice. If you are practicing in an area, or areas, that you aren’t passionate about, it is unlikely that you will be great in those areas. And again, I’m not suggesting that you up and quit those areas tomorrow. Many attorneys practice in areas that they aren’t passionate about that pay the bills. I’m merely suggesting, as Good To Great found, that it’s worth analysis and very unlikely that they will reach greatness.

What Can (and Can’t) You Actually Be The Best At?

Another tough one. To me, this question must be addressed very specifically. Don’t ask yourself whether you can be “the best personal injury attorney” or “best criminal defense attorney”. Instead, ask yourself whether you can be the best attorney that handles X very specific type of legal matter or hyper-niche practice area. Further, within that very specific area of practice, what is it that makes you the best? Is it your availability to your clients? Is it your skill and experience in the courtroom? Is it your familiarity with a very specific subject?

In addition to understanding what you can be the best at, it’s equally important to understand what you can’t be the best at. While I think that having aspirations about what you’d like to be the best at is motivating, those aspirations won’t take you to greatness. Focus on those things that are attainable. And communicate them to your prospective and existing clients.

What Drives Your Economic Engine?

Or, what do you do that you can earn a living doing? Let’s face it, there has to be an economic component. You might be deeply passionate and exceptionally good at something that has little to no economic value to you. In order to get to great, you will need to tie your passion and your skill to something that can generate a living for you. While this may seem intuitive enough, for some it is easy to get carried away by passion without considering economic viability. This of course is not sustainable.

As the research from Good To Great suggests, where the answers to these three components intersect is where you are most likely to be able to get to great. Once you have answered these questions and identified the intersection, the next step is execution, which can be a major challenge in and of itself.

Try to stay focused on your hedgehog concept, and recognize that you can’t be all things to all people and provide all solutions to all situations. If you’re able to do that, and communicate that others, I suggest that you will best position yourself to be great. And for those of us who aren’t able, we may have to settle for good, mediocre, or merely competent…

Have you read Good To Great? Do you think it’s applicable to practicing law? How do you define greatness?

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  • Pick any law firm in the AmLaw 100, then go to their news and press release page. It will be filled with accolades such as “15 attorneys named among the best in their practice area.” Every month, sometimes only a weekly basis, these awards get handed down. At big firms, almost every partner is considered among the best in their practice.

    And, the reality is that you will probably never be the best, unless you pick such a niche area of law that the title of best becomes irrelevant, like “best plaintiff’s counsel for victims of bites from dogs owned by Mr. Dinkelson.”

    Law has so many people that there will always be someone better than you, and there will always be someone worse than you trying to steal your business. Trying to be the best is a useless game, and not even worth playing.

    In fact, it may even be harmful. Striving to be better is generally good, but trying to reach an unattainable goal is not. Once you’ve subconsciously understood that being the best isn’t possible, you’ll turn to trying to rationalize how great you are, and then you venture into fantasy land instead of focusing on making real improvements.

    • BL1Y, you overlook the fact that “best” is a subjective term. Many of those attorneys at large firms are considered the “best” based on the esteem of their colleagues (one of the criteria Gyi mentioned in the intro), but those attorneys almost certainly would not be the best for every single person facing the same general legal issue. The wife of an NBA player seeking a divorce has very different legal issues than does a lower-middle-class domestic violence victim, for instance–there’s no way to label one person as “the best divorce lawyer” and truly believe that he or she would be the best person to serve every divorce client. For some clients, hand-holding is a critical skill; for others it’s the ability to get the job done well within a budget. For some, it’s skill at playing hardball; for others, it’s the ability to negotiate painlessly. Given the wide range of client needs and priorities, there is a lot of room for many, many attorneys to be the “best” at what they do.

      • That’s the exact sort of irrelevant sort of super-specialty I described. There’s “the best divorce lawyer in the state” which means something, and then there’s “the best divorce attorney for Mrs. Dinkleton at this particular stage of her life.”

        Under the latter concept of “the best” almost every attorney is the best, and once you can describe virtually every attorney in the country as “the best,” the term becomes meaningless.

        • BL1Y, I must be misunderstanding you. Surely you don’t mean to suggest that providing stellar customer service or being the most skilled attorney at negotiating divorce settlements is irrelevant? If I’m a client who has as a high priority avoiding a messy contested divorce hearing (and such clients are hardly confined to “Mrs. Dinkleton at a particular stage of her life”), I don’t care who is the “best divorce lawyer” in the state if he’s the best because he wins every contested hearing. I care about who can provide the service that I need.

          • The best person for your needs would matter a great deal to a client. But, this article was discussing the idea of being the best from the lawyer’s perspective.

            You can be the “best” by simply narrowing what you’re the best at to something that isn’t exactly meaningful. For instance, I may be the best the person to water my neighbors plants while they’re gone. This isn’t because I’m great at watering plants, and I’ve just crated a category so limited that it’s not particularly meaningful to be the best at it.

            You can also be the “best” by playing the rationalization game. Find your greatest strengths, and then figure out how you can squeeze them into a very ill-fitting definition of “best” and then apply the label. Again, not particularly meaningful.

            And then there’s being the best at something that’s important. Not just the best divorce lawyer for Mr. Jones, and the best for Mrs. Smith, but the best in divorce lawyer in the tri-county area.

            To make it clear why some definition of “best” don’t really matter, Larry the Cable Guy is the best person at saying “Git er done.” But, he is certainly not the best comedian. He’s not even the best redneck comedian.

  • @BL1Y – I certainly can’t disagree that Larry the Cable Guy is not the best comedian.

    To me, Good To Great or “getting to being great” has more to do with the increased probability that someone has when they are passionate about something, setting realistic goals & having a realistic perspective for attaining those goals, and of course considering the economics.

    Obviously, “best” doesn’t carry much meaning. My point was that like the businesses from Good To Great, lawyers that spend some time thinking about what they’re really passionate about, that they’re also good at, and that there’s a demand for, they are better positioned to “do well” or “be great” than if they’re doing something that they couldn’t care less about and are just mediocre at.

    Obviously, finding this intersection is much more easily said than done. I am passionate about football, but I’m not very good at it, even in a meaningless hyper-niche community.

    I’m really good at playing Zelda, but no one is willing to pay me to play it, at least not yet.

    And I got paid to be a lawyer, but ended up trying something different because I didn’t have the passion for it that I once thought that I did and that I thought it would take to be great.