Law school did a great job teaching me legal doctrine. If you think about it, that is what law school has been designed to do and has done for a long time.
Yet, after making it through the law school gauntlet, we are hit with the cold reality of realizing that we don’t quite know what we are doing despite spending three years learning “the law.” There is much more to the practice of law than legal doctrine.
Here are six key things I learned while on the job and are things that all lawyers should know. This is NOT intended to be a comprehensive list. It is just a starting point.
A lawyer’s job is often more about managing people than about managing a specific matter.
Managing people may involve empowering individuals to help them help you or for improving a process or procedure. Managing people may involve shifting how you communicate certain things due to personality differences or differences in priorities. There may even be times when you need to engage in resolving a conflict. Knowledge of specific laws may not be much help in such a situation. Knowing the law is table stakes to be an effective lawyer. It is necessary, but not sufficient.
Emotional intelligence is critical.
A hallmark of humanity is our emotions. This makes understanding emotions and how to manage them important. Emotional intelligence is critical. One definition of emotional intelligence is the capacity to handle relationships among people with discretion and with empathy. Lawyers are human and customers of lawyers are. Many decisions are made not based on facts, but on emotions. Knowing how to handle the impacts of such decision-making and how to handle emotions, more generally, is key. All too often lawyers have been taught to think about legal concepts in a vacuum devoid of emotion. Understanding why people feel a certain way can help not just better understand how to manage a decision or a process, but also how to manage a relationship.
The business of law differs from practicing law and to succeed as a legal professional you should know how to do both.
Practicing law is drafting contracts, providing legal advice, litigating a case, or negotiating. The business of law is managing the finances, tracking matters, and managing correspondence among other “business” items. If you are an expert in the law, but not proficient in the business, it will be challenging to succeed. Even if you have an administrative assistant, secretary, or other support personnel you need to know how your business operates and the key factors that drive it regardless of your role and especially if you are the one leading it. Your clients will expect you to know your business just as well if not better than they know theirs. You want to be and need to be able to be empower your clients.
How legal tech can help you be a better lawyer.
There is a reason 39 states have adopted the duty of technology competence. Legal tech is not a fad that is going away. It is not only here to stay, but is affecting the practice of law and the business of law. There now are more and more tools that can help lawyers perform a number of different tasks. Clients are becoming more attuned to the power of technology and expecting their legal resources to be up to date on them and use them where it makes sense to do so. Lawyers, now must be aware of these technologies and of their benefits and their risks.
You need have fluency in the language of business.
Lawyers, I hate to break it to you (not really, though), but this means you need to be comfortable working with numbers. Consider a client asks you to assist them with potentially going public. You need to evaluate their business financials to determine how best to proceed. Consider a client asking you to help them with a potential sale to another company. Again, you need to know how to evaluate their financials and related documentation to assist with the due diligence process. If you are not fluent in the language of business, this will be a very steep learning curve to overcome.
Clear and actionable communication is needed.
It’s one thing to understand complex legal concepts and to apply them to novel situations. It’s quite another to convey these concepts to someone not versed in the law and explaining why that concept is or should be a concern for the client. Knowing how to translate legalese into everyday language is important. If your client doesn’t understand what you are trying to say, then that poses a host of problems regarding your ability to be a partner and advisor to them as their trusted legal resource. An additional point to remember is context. Clients more often than not do present discrete legal questions. They ask questions that can appear simple when asked, but complex when needing to be answered. It’s important to communicate this to your client and help understand why an ostensibly yes or no question is sometimes just the opposite.
I can't blame law schools for not teaching me these things. Most schools are not equipped to teach these things. Perhaps they should be, though.
A Final Lesson: Relationships matter. Your reputation matters. Your humanity matters.