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?