So you want to be a lawyer? Good for you. And you want to be a good lawyer, the best you can be? Of course you do! By having just stated that to yourself you have already taken the most important step. Congratulations!
Your next step is to cultivate the essential skills that will not only help you get into and succeed in law school, but also to flourish professionally once you have your law school degree (also known as a Juris Doctor or J.D.). These integral skills fall primarily into three categories: those regarding intellect, people and character. Intellectual skills are the skills of knowledge, logic and creativity that are required to quickly and accurately assess a client’s problem and ascertain possible solutions. People skills are those you need to get along with others in a productive way; without the social interaction and interpersonal relationship skills to bring people along with you, you won’t be able to draw upon valuable social resources or work effectively as a team. Character skills are necessary to work efficaciously towards the success of your endeavors, focus on what matters, and deliver under pressure.
Yet there will be more study to come, as most law schools require a high school diploma and a four year college degree, followed by scoring well on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). Although U.S. law schools consider any university major to be acceptable, concentrations in history, political science, philosophy, economics, English literature, or communication are especially useful, as knowledge of these subjects represents the sine qua non or what is essential (and it won’t hurt to know a little Latin, too) for developing the skills you’ll need for acceptance into law school and success in the law profession. While some degrees may prove more useful than others in the long-term, your GPA is still more important in determining which law schools you can get into. Therefore, be sure you have a strong personal interest and ability in whatever degree you pursue. In addition, there are high school and college courses, intensive summer law courses, and extracurricular activities such as debate club competitions or student government that can help prepare you. Participation in pre-law school volunteer work ,taking on a pre-law school legal job, or participating in a law internship program will provide valuable experience and demonstrate your dedication to making the law, your life.
So what is law about? There are many definitions, but one useful definition is that law is the deliverance of justice in an imperfect world that is rife with conflict, contention and disagreements. It is helpful to remember that there are essentially only two different types of lawyers. The first being transactional or 'deal-making' lawyers, who often work in corporate law, and the second being litigation or 'dispute resolution' lawyers, who spend more time presenting cases in court. Regardless of your specialization, in order to be most successful as a lawyer, you will attempt to bring some resolution, if not harmony and agreement, into the proceedings between competing claims; through your innate vision, the learned skills you have developed, as well as your life experience.
Returning to our three essential categories of skills, let us take a closer look at what these innate and learned skills are in more detail, and see how they all fit together to make the life that you want while serving others.
1. Research Skills and an Encyclopedic Knowledge of the Law
To be an effective lawyer, first and foremost you must be an effective reseacher. Nothing is more essential that the ability to identify and distill the relevant facts surrounding your case, and then analyze these with respect to the present state of the law. At first this will seem like a daunting task, but with practice as well as access to expert mentors and specialized legal research resources, you will gradually hone these skills and develop an extensive knowledge of the law. However because every case will present you with novel details and challenges, of greater importance is learning how to find out what it is that you need to know, and how to teach it to yourself.
How to develop this skill: Research resources available to you include the books in library stacks, primarily from any law libraries you may have access to; constitutions, treaties, legislations, statutes, regulations and codes; case files and precedents; law reviews, journals, treatises, and practice guides; legal databases and websites; news articles and press releases, and colleagues with first-hand experience and information. Recently artificial intelligence has also been increasingly used to help facilitate this process, and will likely continue to grow in importance. Research, as with most skills, takes constant practice and the more you work at it, the more streamlined and efficient your searches will become. So keep at it, stay focused, and the results will come. This leads neatly into the next skill.
2. Working with the Big Picture and the Details: Gaining perspective
As a lawyer, you will inevitably and intimately be involved in life, in the big concerns and the little details of daily living, as well as living into the future. Many cases pivot on the frontlines of emerging global and local trends and developments, in politics, economics, business and banking, as well as in social and environmental settings. Having a wide understanding of current affairs and business trends and how these developments are likely to affect the law and even your own law firm and its clients, may be critical both to your success in effectively representing clients and in staying afloat in a volatile world.
How to develop this skill: Keep abreast of world news and global trends and read voraciously and extensively. Read newspapers, law journals, and other professional magazines and periodicals, particularly those authors who specialize in summarizing world news and analyzing trends. Networking with change-makers, innovators and thinkers will also help you keep your fingertips on the pulse. All these exercises are especially useful in granting perspective, reflecting upon the broader significance of your actions, and helping to put events into their proper context. In addition, never accept something as true merely because supposed experts or popular opinion claims it to be so, or because of your own pre-conceived notions. Investigate all sides of an issue objectively and dispassionately, and have the intellectual discipline to let the evidence be your guide to the truth, not the other way around.
3. Analytical Problem-solving: Incorporating the Creative
Although it may seem that analytical and creative aspects of problem solving do not go together, in fact the use of both in concert is fundamental to the practice of law.. Analytical thinking maps out the logical steps inherent to first conceptualizing and then constructing an approach to solving problems for a specific case, perhaps within guidelines already established. In law, lawyers stand on the shoulders of their colleagues so to speak. However, a client’s case may be so complex or cutting edge that it may require you to break new ground with your thinking,, exploring new ideas, arguments, and directions. proceedings. Here imagination and intuition can win the day.
How to develop this skill: Work experience of any kind, not only in the legal field, is an excellent avenue towards developing problem solving skills. Problems are unavoidable wherever you work, so don’t avoid them; embrace them. The more experience you have with issues which may arise, the better prepared you will be for the next one.
Another essential skill is excellent verbal intelligence – specifically reading comprehension skills. Legal contracts and briefs are couched in such dense and sometimes archaic prose, so full of legal jargon, that for a layperson they may as well be in another language. You must first be able to fully comprehend exactly what you are reading with a close attention to detail– a legal case can turn on a single word or punctuation mark. The best way to improve your reading comprehension and your facility with words is to read widely: poetry as well as prose, fiction and non-fiction, modern books as well as books written in other historical eras. Other helpful avenues could include word games, riddles, crosswords, tutoring someone else in literature or even learning another language (especially Latin-based), which would help you better understand the rules and structure of your own language.
Training in mathematics is also a fantastic avenue for rapidly improving your analytical ability and your attention to detail. There can be nothing more precise and absolute than the pure deductive abstraction of mathematics, and if you can learn to apply this level of analytical rigor to the legal world you will be head and shoulders above the competition. It is important however to make sure you are learning math in the right way, not merely memorizing formulas. Exercises where you dig deeper and attempt to cultivate an understanding of why a particular formula works and what it actually means are superb training for your analytical skills. In addition, the higher you go in mathematics the more creative capacity is required, particularly when attempting to construct mathematical proofs; this practice will hold you in good stead when preparing to shine in the courtroom.
Remember, when it comes to problem solving, it is not a question of ‘either/or’, but ‘both/and’. Integrating both the logical and the creative will empower you to be your most effective.
4. Written Communication Skills
This is the basis around which much of the work of being a lawyer revolves. Being a lawyer involves writing clearly, logically, creatively, and extensively - writing letters to clients, drafting documents, and drawing up contracts, from dawn to way into the dark. You will have the help of templates, examples, and staff trained to support you, yet the final responsibility for coherence, logic, and standards will be entirely yours. Challenge yourself and take advantage of every opportunity to learn to write well.
How to develop this skill: You will naturally develop your own writing style as you write essays and papers for school and university. You will learn these skills whenever you study an essay based subject such as literature, political science, or history, or when participating in a summer course in creative writing. Outside of school you can continue to build these skills through daily journaling, writing for your school newspaper, or even creating and writing your own blog. Extensive reading, particularly reading celebrated works from great authors will also help hone your written communications skills. You can also keep a diary to record great expressions and quotations that you come across for inspiration and later use.
5. Understanding and Reflecting on Other People
Lawyers first and foremost provide a service for their clients defending their interests, but these duties may extend beyond this formal role. For instance, a client may seek a lawyer specializing in litigation, but also one who can provide them with the emotional strength needed to make a legal claim for harm done. Or perhaps what a transaction-based client really needs is for their lawyer to help them better understand their economic objectives and financial situation. You need to understand your client’s goals, their fears, their limitations, and their overarching vision of what they want for themselves, whether they are individuals or groups, or whether family or company concerns. Properly addressing these different goals involves understanding how human beings are likely to feel and act in these situations.
It is also critical to be able to translate the often off-putting technical language of the law in terms that make sense to your clients. This involves listening, observing and reflecting, which will help you communicate effectively with your clients. Clients must understand you before they will trust you to solve their problems. This skill is also useful in better understanding your legal opponents and being able to predict their actions.
How to develop this skill: The more work experience you can get dealing with customers, managers, friends and family, and facing their problems, the better you will be at understanding an uncomfortable situation and helping them come to a resolution. However, that is only one aspect of the equation. Self-reflection, turning inward to review a situation as you experienced it and how you performed in it, evaluating whether you might have handled it in a more suitable fashion, or what you might have done if you had known better, is a critical ability. Here courses in psychology, counselling, mediation and organizational behaviour may develop your understanding of yourself and others.
6. Verbal Communication Skills
Whether you are working in a team, on a case with your clients, or in arguing in court, the ability to think and speak on your feet, whether one-on-one or in a group, is critical to your success. Your job is to know your case so well that you can communicate your arguments clearly, concisely, and persuasively under pressure. It is no mean feat to convince a judge and jury of the merits of your client’s case, or bring two parties together with a multitude of opposing and common interests to eventually sign on the dotted line. Back at the office, there will be endless phone calls, as well as presentations and meetings with colleagues and clients, new and old. Here your understanding of people will come to the fore, to focus and direct your communication suitably.
How to develop this skill: Public speaking is a skill that people often struggle with, but there are many ways to practice and put those fears to rest. Getting involved in theater, debating clubs or Toastmasters, or extracurricular activities such as Model UN and student government will help develop the ease with which you speak in public and in private, the projection of your voice, the pace and cadence with which you speak, and, ultimately help you command the courtroom.
7. Working with Others: Teamworking and Collaboration
The ability to work as a team is essential in every profession, and law is no exception. In a team, your expression of respect and empathy for others helps people to get along. This, combined with your ability to listen and integrate the views and opinions of others, creates an atmosphere of acceptance conducive to effective, productive and creative team brainstorming and problem solving.
How to develop this skill: Getting involved in social, cultural and political student organizations, sports clubs, and musical, dance and theatrical groups at school and university, not to mention taking a student job on campus, is a great way to develop friendships, have fun, and learn how to collaborate effectively towards a common goal. Simply by being a part of these groups, you will gain valuable teamwork skills often without even noticing you are doing so.
8. Thinking on Your Own: Relying on Yourself
Although effective teamwork is fundamental to your success, the ability to rely on yourself is also critical: you will need initiative to work on your own, independence to rely on yourself, and integrity to hold to your sense of self and your ethics when they are under fire. With each new case, you have the responsibility to win the case or close the deal, devising your own solutions to problems rather than relying solely on other people. This can involve heading down a new path or making decisions under your own authority. Will you have the self-confidence to do so? This can be a daunting prospect at first, but your practice of self-reflection can be of immense value to help you construct your own vision and to maintain your self-belief. Being able to take the initiative and being an independent thinker does not mean you must struggle alone, it also means being able to know when and to whom to ask questions and seek guidance.
How to develop this skill: Initiative, independence, and integrity can be developed in any situation, with any individual or group of people. For example, taking a leadership role in a student organization or team is a great way to develop confidence and practice taking the initiative. Or think back to when you have had to take a stand or make a difficult decision, whether with your parents or siblings, your teachers, or your friends, and then had to verbally communicate this to them. These are all examples of self-reflection which is the basis for making your own decisions, and as you practice this it will become more comfortable.
9. Executing under Pressure: Conflict and Resilience
This is where you will test your mettle. This is where you’ll have to give it all you’ve got. This is where a career in law reveals itself as not always an easy choice. A good lawyer is expected to produce immense quantities of documents in short periods of time, and to deliver a superlative performance when everything is on the line. And what happens if you lose a point, or lose a case? How do you deal with it - do you collapse in despair or do you dust yourself off and keep going? This means dedication and resilience, and it also means learning how to deal with conflict and with failure.
How to develop this skill: Law is in essence a service business, and clients expect you to guide them through all stages of a contract or case, so effective execution and time management is paramount. To work effectively under a deadline, you must reflect on what you will need to accomplish, and make an overall plan. This helps you prioritize the most important tasks, and also see the big picture and how the individual details fit into it. Set timetables for individual tasks and personal intermediate deadlines to pace your work and manage it efficiently, factoring in the time needed to adequately deal with any unexpected issues.
To become good with conflict, and with conflict resolution, the more you practice dealing with uncomfortable situations effectively and appropriately, the better you will become at handling them. Did the waiter bring you the wrong dish? Make sure you get exactly what you ordered but in a polite and tactful way. Did the cab driver not give you enough change? Civilly but firmly point out the discrepancy, and get the correct change. Can you negotiate a better deal on that used car? Stick your neck out there and press for less. An additional way to increase your emotional strength and self-confidence in these situations is to boost your physical strength, so go work out and get fit, or better yet, master a martial art. People will feel it.
Resilience and perseverance in the face of setbacks and failure are some of the most essential markers of success in any walk of life. Here self-confidence and self-reliance combine with humility, and the determination and the drive to keep going through discouraging situations, and with the judgement needed to know when to try another angle of approach or cut your losses entirely. These skills are learned both through life experience and self-reflection. Meditation helps, as does seeking advice and counselling from professionals, mentors in your field, and family and friends. It’s OK to ask for help when you need it.
10. Understanding Yourself: How Do You Want to Live Your Life?
“Knowing others is wisdom
Knowing the self is enlightenment”
-Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (trans. G. Feng & J. English)
Throughout this article we have spoken of the central importance of self-knowledge and self-reflection with respect to self-development. The basis of self-development is to throw yourself into life, thereby giving yourself the experiences you need in order to grow and prosper. You then reflect on these experiences by setting aside the personal and individual time needed for inner work. This is a sure-fire way to grow into your maturity, not only as the individual who you are and who you have discovered yourself to be, but also as a competent professional in the field of law.
Speaking of being a good lawyer, it is important to understand and reflect upon why you are drawn to the law. Perhaps at an early age you personally experienced an injustice which has influenced your entire life trajectory. Perhaps you saw others who were unfairly treated in a social or financial setting, deprived of their constitutionally protected rights to live as equal citizens, and you yearned to bring the culprits to justice. Or perhaps your interest lies in the beauty found in the drafting of an unimpeachable, efficacious contract. Whatever your motivations, knowing them and knowing yourself will help you stay on your path, whilst being open to growth and change.
How to develop this skill: To know yourself, you must set aside time for self reflection- the beginning and/or the end of each day are fine times to dedicate to this reflection. This allows you to think over and think through what has happened each day, in order to discover how to proceed into the future. It will help you understand what you did well, and what might have needed more research, preparation, or support. It also allows the unbidden to arise spontaneously, to complement what you do know, so that what you do not know will not have the opportunity to sabotage your best laid plans as easily. When you execute on what you discovered through your reflection, you contribute to your overall self-maturation.
Through this process, you will also discover your preferences, strengths, limitations, and predilections. Do you work better as an extrovert or an introvert? Do you like to work with others or alone? Are you more self-confident when supporting people or problem solving? Are you better at analysis or creativity? Do you know when to sacrifice detail for the big picture and vice-versa? Learn how you work best. When you know yourself well enough, you will also discover what facets of the law profession you are best at, and therefore what kind of lawyer you should become. Through this process you will find your own style of living and forge your own distinctive personality. And you will know you have done your job well, when your personal and private life blends seamlessly into your professional life.
The key to developing the skills you will need to become a good lawyer is to continually challenge yourself. Whether it be to work in teams, speaking in public, researching legal judgments to write your own briefs, incorporating the creative with your analytical problem solving, keeping track of global and local trends to understand the details as part of the big picture, working under pressure, standing up for your rights or giving a voice to those who have none, each and every activity with which you engage can offer you the possibility of building and extending your own expertise.
A last bit of advice: Commit yourself to being a life-long learner of both of your inner and your outer worlds. Be greedy for the knowledge that serves you and others. Keep on being curious, even when you think you know it all.
If you are already certain you want to become a lawyer, or if you are just curious and want to learn more about it, there is no better introduction to the discipline of law and the law profession than the summer law courses and law internships for students ages 12-18 at World Scholars Academy. On our programs you will be taught by world-leading legal scholars and accompanied by exceptional peers with the same interests from around the world. If you would like to learn more about our programs and discover how we can accelerate the attainment of your loftiest goals please don’t hesitate to contact us. We are here to help!
Bon chance and good luck with all your endeavors!