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So You Want to Be a Lawyer? 10 Essential Skills for Success

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

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 skills that will not only help you get in to 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 skills fall into primarily three categories, those regarding; people, character, and intellect.

People skills are the skills you need to get along with other people in a productive way. Character skills are the skills that you will need to bring the right attitudes and behaviors to the fore, to help see you through to the right result. Intellectual skills are the skills of logic and creativity that when applied, will help you accomplish your goals.

Each of these skills is integral to your success. For 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. Likewise, character skills are necessary to work efficaciously towards the success of your endeavors, focus on what matters, and deliver under pressure. While intellect skills are required to quickly and accurately assess a client’s problem and ascertain possible solutions.

So let’s take a closer look at what is involved in each of these skills to get you on the right track.

Each of these skills is both innate and trained. That is, you are both born into them from the beginning and yet also can acquire them through upbringing and education. The good news is that you are well on your way to having learned and acquired many of these skills already: not only just by being born with all your innate potential, but also by having attended, studied, and graduated from each successive year of school.

Yet there will be more study to come. It will be best to just accept that it will take time and effort to get to where you want to go, as most law schools require a high school diploma and a college degree. Although law schools consider any university major to be acceptable, concentrations in history, philosophy, economics, English literature, or communication are especially useful, as knowledge in these subjects represent the sine qua non (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 itself. Although some degrees may prove more useful than others long-term, your GPA is still more important in determining which law schools you can get in to. 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 to study and work in the field of law. Participation in pre-law school volunteer work or taking on a pre-law school legal job can also demonstrate your commitment to and experience in declaring your dedication to making the law, your life.

Speaking of being a good lawyer, you may have had an experience in life that makes you yearn to be a good lawyer. Perhaps you saw others who were unfairly treated in a social or financial setting, deprived of their constitutionally protected rights to gather or speak freely of their experience of injustice, or were even harmed in the expression of these rights and you yearned to bring the culprits to justice. Or perhaps you experienced an injustice yourself at an early age which has influenced your entire life trajectory. Or perhaps your interest lies in seeking the beauty in the drafting of an unimpeachable, efficacious contract. Whatever it is, remember, you won’t and don’t have to do it alone. Others have gone before you and others will come after you. You will find your compatriots with whom you will be working in the arena of delivering competent, even brilliant, law service to those who will rely on you to do so.

So what is law about? There certainly may be 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, and the second being litigation or 'dispute resolution' lawyers. Regardless of your specialization, 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. And you will do so, through both your innate vision and the learned skills you have developed through your education to date, as well as a continuing reflection on your pure and simple life experience.

Returning to our three essential skills, let us take a closer look at what these skills are in more detail, and see how they all fit together to make the life that you want while serving others. As we integrate these innate and learned skills, we will see how they can work for you, to create the life that serves you well.


1. Working with Others: Valuing Teamwork and Brainstorming

The ability to work as a team is essential in every and any job and the profession of law is no different. 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 and productive team work. This leads to the creative team brainstorming that solves problems creatively. When people effectively get work done as a team and enjoy working with each other, they will call on each other repeatedly, which is a fine way to progress in your career and build your own genuine self-esteem.

How to Develop This Skill: Getting involved in social and political societies, debate teams, sports clubs, and theatrical groups at school and university 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. But if you combine these experiences with constructive self-reflection, you will rapidly build on your strengths and overcome any weaknesses.

2. Verbal Communication Skills: Communicating with Others

When you are working in a team, or on a case with your clients, or in court, the ability to think and speak on your feet, so to speak, 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 under pressure, clearly, concisely, and persuasively. Never forget that you are here to advocate on behalf of your clients’ interests. 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, colleague and team meetings, as well as presentations and meetings with new clients 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 many people struggle with, but there are many ways to practice and put those fears to rest. Getting involved in theater or in debating clubs or Toastmasters will help develop the projection of your voice and the pace and cadence with which you speak. Your practice of self-reflection and meditation can also influence positively the ease with which you speak in public or in private, and ultimately help you command the courtroom.

3. Understanding and Reflecting on Other People: What is Your Job Really All About?

Lawyers first and foremost provide a service for those clients who seek them out to defend their interests. Perhaps clients seek a lawyer specializing in litigation to provide them with the emotional strength needed to formally make a legal claim for harm done or benefits lost. Or perhaps what a transaction-based client really needs is for their lawyer to help them better understand their economic objectives and financial situation. Properly addressing these different goals involves understanding how human beings feel and want or need to act in these precarious situations. You will also want to understand your client’s goals, their fears, their limitations, their overarching vision of what they want for themselves, whether they be individuals or groups, whether they be family or company concerns. It is also critical to understand what your clients want from you as their lawyer, as you will have to put what they want into the context of the law in terms that make sense to your clients, interpreting for them the often off-putting technical language of the law. This involves listening and observing and reflecting on what you have heard and observed. This practice is what can help you form and give coherence to your client communications. At this point, expressing and sharing your views, strategy, and commitment will stand you in good stead. When clients can trust your judgment and your assessment of their cases, you will have them on your side.

How to develop this skill: The more work experience you can get dealing with customers and managers, friends and family, and facing their problems with them, the better you will be at understanding an uncomfortable situation and helping them come to a resolution. But 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 fastening on what you might have done if you had known better, is a critical ability to ensure a dedicated maturation in self-development, self-growth, and self-improvement.


4. Thinking on Your Own: Relying on Yourself

Although effective teamwork is fundamental for your success, the ability to rely on yourself to see and formulate your own version of the big picture and of the details of which it consists, is also critical for your success. In the law, with each new case, you will be given 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 on 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. Yet 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: In the profession of law, you’ll need initiative to work on your own and independence to rely on yourself. This is a skill that can be developed at any point along the way, in any situation, with any individual or group of people. Think back when you have had to take a stand or make a difficult decision, with your parents, your teachers, your friends, or your brothers or sisters and then had to verbally communicate to them what you believe and know to be the honest truth. Here you are relying on who you know yourself to be and what you know to be the truth. Out of this self-knowledge you will learn how to get comfortable with making decisions, which ability emerges from the practice of self-reflection. More on this later.

5. Executing under Pressure: Knowing Yourself

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. For a good lawyer is expected to produce tall quantities of documents in short periods of time, and to deliver a superlative performance when everything is on the line. This means dedication, and it also means learning how to deal with conflict.

How to develop this skill: To work effectively under a deadline, take time to reflect on what you will need to accomplish. Set yourself personal intermediate deadlines so you can pace your work. This will help ensure that you complete your tasks on time. At its most basic, law is a service business and clients expect you to guide them through all stages of a contract or case, so time management is paramount. Also factor in the time needed for any unexpected issues to be dealt with adequately. Making an overall plan and timetables for individual tasks helps you manage your work efficiently and helps you prioritize the most important tasks. This also helps you see the big picture and how the individual details fit into it. There is no more valuable standpoint than this. These are all skills you can apply to any complex or simple task.

To become good with conflict, you need to practice it. Did the waiter bring you the wrong dish, make sure you get what you ordered. Did the cab driver not give you enough change, voice your displeasure. Can you negotiate a better deal on that used car? Stick your neck out there and press for less. The more your practice dealing with uncomfortable situations the better you will become at handling them. An additional way to increase your emotional strength in these situations is to boost your physical strength, so go work out and get fit. Or even better, master a martial art so there is even more substance behind your demands. People will feel it.

6. 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 business, economics, and banking, as well as in social and environmental settings and milieus. Having a broad 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 to your success in staying afloat in a volatile world. It is therefore important to reflect upon the broader significance of your actions, while at the same time not to be swayed by temporarily popular flights of fancy.

How to develop this skill: For starters, keep abreast of world news and global trends. Read voraciously and extensively. Read newspapers, law journals, and other professional magazines and periodicals. Talk to those authors who specialize in this kind of analysis and writing, those authors who specialize in summarizing world news and trends can be especially useful in helping you see the big picture. These exercises will give you perspective and will help you put events into their proper context. In addition, never accept something as true just because supposed experts claim it to be so. Investigate all sides to an issue impartially and without prejudice, and have the discipline to let the evidence be your guide to the truth, not the other way around.


7. Analytical Problem Solving: Incorporating the Creative

Although it may seem that analytical and creative aspects of problem solving do not and cannot go together, in fact the use of both in concert is not only possible but is fundamental to the practice of law. This ability is underwritten by our innate ability to access both the right or imaginal and left or logical sides of our brains in mutual participation and interaction. Just as we use the left and right sides of the brain in our daily thought processes and decision making, so can we combine intuitively, analytical or logical and creative or imaginal thinking in solving problems. Analytical thinking discovers the logic within an attempted 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, and rightly so. However, a client’s case may be so complex or cutting edge that it may require you to break new ground with your thinking, letting your mind wander to new places, exploring new ideas, arguments, and directions, to win in court or in mediation proceedings. Here imagination and intuition win the day.

How to Develop this Skill: Work experience of any kind, will work wonders in developing problem solving skills. It needn’t only be in the legal field. Problems are unavoidable wherever you work, so don’t avoid them. Embrace them, for the more experience you have of the issues which may arise between people, the better prepared you will be for the next one arising. Training in mathematics is also a fantastic avenue for rapidly improving your analytical ability. 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. I am not talking about memorizing formulas, but digging deeper and attempting to cultivate an understanding of why a particular formula works and what it actually means. Such exercises are superb training for your intellect. In addition, the higher you go in mathematics the more creativity is required. In particular, a high degree of creative capacity is required when attempting to construct mathematical proofs, and this practice will also 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 free you to be your most effective.

8. Written Communication Skills: Communicating within and without of Your Profession

This is the point around which much of the work of being a lawyer revolves. For being a lawyer involves writing logically, creatively, and extensively. Writing letters to clients, drafting documents, drawing up contracts, from dawn to way into the dark. But you don’t have to do this part alone. You’ll have the help of templates, examples, and staff trained to support you. Yet you will not get off scot free. The final responsibility for coherence, logic, and standards among many other aspects of the narrative, will be entirely yours. This is where you will discover the finesse and grace of your mind revealed in a fluent, articulate, and far-ranging writing style. This skill will constantly be put to the test. Give yourself every opportunity to learn to write well, and challenge to give yourself this gift. If you keep plugging away at it, it will eventually come, but not without a lot of preparation first.

How to develop this skill: You will naturally develop your own writing style as you write essays and papers for school and university. When you don’t study an essay based subject such as literature, or political science, or theater, then journaling daily, writing for your school newspaper, or even creating and writing your own blog, might be the answer to give you experience. Extensive reading, and reading celebrated works from great English authors will also help hone your written communications skills, so that you always know what to say and know how to say it. You can also keep a diary to record great expressions and quotes that you come across for later use.

9. Working with the Law: Research Skills and an Encyclopedic Knowledge of the Law

Nothing looks more professional than a well-researched and timely presented brief. This often involves a great deal of time and work. The kindest thing you can do for yourself in this situation is to give yourself plenty of time and space to accomplish what you have set out to do. Dedicate the time you need for adequate preparation. Use as many resources as you can find: the books in library stacks, news articles, websites, press releases, colleagues with first-hand experience and information. Using a full range of resources will not only broaden your knowledge, but will also ensure you have the big picture, which will enable you to better understand the details of your research, and gradually over time give you an encyclopedic knowledge of the law. If you can carry some of this around in your head as actual fact, good for you. As valuable, though, is the acquisition of the knowledge of how to teach yourself how to find out what you need to know and the very path you took to actually acquire it. And don’t discount the blessings of coincidences to give you exactly the information that you have either been looking for, or know you will need.

How to develop this skill: Research, as with most skills, takes constant practice and the more you work at it, the more streamlined and efficient your searches will become. Again, this happens often without your noticing, until notice you do. So keep at it, stay focused, and the results will come.

10. Understanding and Reflecting on Yourself: How Do You Want to Live Your Life?

The basis of self-development is to throw yourself into life, thereby giving yourself the experiences you will need in order for you to grow and prosper. Then you 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.

Yes, 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 extemporaneously, researching legal judgments to write your own briefs, incorporating the creative with your analytical problem solving, keeping track of global and local trends, and working under pressure to understand the details as part of the big picture, each and every activity with which you engage can offer you the possibility of building and extending your own expertise.

How to Develop this Skill: However, this won’t happen, as well as it might, unless you set aside time for inner work. Inner work is practicing reflection, also called mindfulness or meditation. The beginning and/or the end of each day are fine times to engage in reflection. Reflecting allows you to think over and think through, what has happened each day. This 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 compliment what you do know, so that what you do not know won’t have the opportunity to sabotage your best laid plans as easily. Yes, to reflect is to look back over what has happened each day to discover how to proceed into the future. When you execute on what you came up with upon 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 working with 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. Through this process you find your own style of living and forge your own distinctive personality which you can rely on, to live into the future. When you know yourself well enough, you will know what facets of the law profession you are best at, what kind of lawyer you should become. For actually there are so many aspects of the law that most personalities will be able to find a place therein. And you will know you have done your job well, when your personal and private life blends seamlessly into your professional life.

And a last bit of advice: Be a life-long learner both of your inner and your outer worlds. Commit yourself to being this long-life learner. Be greedy for the knowledge that serves you. Keep on being curious, even when you think you know it all. And remember, if you have character, nothing else matters, but if you have no character, nothing else matters.

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 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 summer courses and discover how we can accelerate the attainment of your loftiest law goals please don’t hesitate to contact us. We are here to help!

Bon chance and good luck with all your endeavors!

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