You're a hard worker, but how can you be a better lawyer?
If you're like me, you probably wish someone would just tell you how to be a better lawyer now, so you don't have to wait to make a million mistakes. I'm going to do my best to help you out in this article.
About 16 years ago I was a new lawyer who jumped into trials as a criminal prosecutor.
I was fortunate to have guidance as to where to sit in the courtroom, how to voir dire and what it meant to be an ethical prosecutor. But no one told me how to organize my life to create ease.
To be fair, they didn’t hire me to create ease and grace when I entered a courtroom. They hired me to get the job done no matter how overwhelmed or stressed out I was.
What I wish someone told me was there are tools to create a better life while still getting the job done in the courtroom (or the office, if you’re not in court.) Now that I coach lawyers, I can help them get the tools they need to make their lives easier.
How to be a Better Lawyer? Know What it Means to Be a Great One.
Great lawyers know:
- what success means to them, and they intentionally create that success in every area of their life.
- have ease and grace in and out of the courtroom because they take the time to become organized and set boundaries.
- continue to cultivate skills that will benefit them in their own lives as well as benefit their clients.
- They’re honest and ethically represent their side of the issue.
In this article I’m giving you some step by step tools and strategies to becoming a better lawyer (and a better human, really).
What qualities define a successful lawyer?
Learning how to be a better lawyer isn't enough. First, you've got to define what success means to you.
It’s important to think about what you believe defines success. I thought this was so important that I did a podcast on it. This isn’t just thinking about what it means to be awesome at your job. It means thinking about how you’re going to be awesome at life. It’s about incorporating all those things that are most important to you. Write down what you want in your life. The sky is the limit. Ignore the limitations you may see pop up when you do this exercise.
Here are some tools and tips that will help make your life and law practice easier.
How to Be a Better Lawyer: Tools and Tips for Your Law Practice
Fact check your statements.
As an officer of the court, you have an obligation to review facts before you state them on the record. If you feel pressured for time, ask the court for a moment to review your notes or the file. You don’t want to be in a position where your statement of the facts is ever questioned. People will look to you more often for the law and the facts if you show up with the right ones consistently. I’ve often been given deference based upon my ability to accurately state the case law and facts where my opposition could not. It’s certainly a bonus when you can (politely) correct opposing counsel’s version of the facts.
To learn more about how to use (and NOT use) ChatGPT for legal matters, listen to episode #265 of Be a Better Lawyer Podcast: “How to Use ChatGPT.”
Only make motions that matter.
Spurious motions may sound like a great idea when you’re new. You actually don’t think they’re spurious. You may think they’re new and interesting, and you want to show your peers that you’ve got the “right stuff” to be a lawyer. Unfortunately, your baseless motions just make you look like you’re trying to obstruct. Once you get this reputation, you’ll likely never shake it. And if you think judges don’t gossip, you’ll soon learn that when you enter a courtroom that your reputation precedes you.
A defense attorney pulled a Penal Code section 991 motion out of his hat in court to stall negotiation proceedings in his client’s case. It’s a code section never used, so the judge didn’t know what it was and neither did the prosecutor. The substitute Judge for the department was in such a hurry, he just set the hearing in another courtroom and moved on to the next case on calendar before the prosecutor could look it up. My co-worker came back to the office to look up the citation, and it turned out that it was a probable cause hearing on a misdemeanor, which is something that is handled administratively by the Court prior to the DA even bringing charges. It’s LITERALLY a checkmark on the police report checked off by a judge. This motion wasted everyone’s time and didn’t improve his reputation with a lot of my colleagues.
“It takes a lifetime to build a reputation and only a moment to burn it to the ground.”
When I was a brand new lawyer, I felt pressured to get trials out. I believed that was the measure of how good you were as an attorney — show no fear. I also needed to make sure that victims felt that I was doing everything I could to get their case out to trial rather than continue it at a defense attorney’s request.
There’s two ways to accomplish these goals: a “newbie” way and a more confident (and competent) way.
If you’re faced with a situation where you feel pressured to push out a case or make something happen for a client, consider how you feel before you talk. If you’re feeling anxious or stressed at the time, then you’ll most likely react in a way that’s not beneficial to you or your client. You may even look like a jerk. When you begin to recognize these feelings of stress and anxiety, you’ll begin to see that you can control these emotions. When you do, then you’l be better able to respond rather than react to situations like this.
The best lawyers are kind to everyone.
I know, I know. This can be tough when you’re working with a bunch of new lawyers who are trying to prove themselves, and you’re angling for partner at your firm.
I’m not saying that you should let yourself be walked on. Once you’ve created firm boundaries and grown into your self-confidence, this will become easier. You can disagree and even argue with someone and still be kind.
That lawyer who made a spurious motion in court? I get along with that person just fine even when we disagree. Part of this, I believe, is because I am more objective about him. He’s doing what comes natural to him, and I don’t take it personally. Whether it’s a defense counsel, court staff, judges, witnesses, etc. Treat everyone with respect. I give people the benefit of the doubt more now than I did even a few years ago. You also never know when your kindness will boomerang back at you. I’ve had defense counsel correct the court on my behalf when the court misinterpreted what I had to say. I’ve had court clerks and secretaries go out of their way to correct something I did, so that I’d look better in front of the judge, I’ve had court reporters cut out my “ums” and “uhs” in court transcripts making me sound much better.
Be the organized lawyer.
Why? You’ll save time and look like you know what you’re doing. Judges love that. Also, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed as a new attorney because you’re rarely given the tools you need to make your life easier.
Here are some of my favorite legal organization tips:
- Every week, organize your inbox in order of priority. It helps keep you on top of the most important stuff.
- Have checklists. If you’re doing things regularly, take the time to create checklists to make tasks move faster.
- Delegate everything you can. Yes, perfectionists are also control freaks. It’s time to delegate things to make your life easier.
- Organize your desk every night before you go home. You’ll be amazed at how much ease you’ll start your day with the next morning when you come to the office. Clutter and stacks of paper on your desk will make you feel overwhelmed at the start of our day.
I also have a couple items that keep me incredibly organized when it comes to growing my business that you may want too:
For planning my marketing and podcast episodes for the year, I love using this dry erase yearly calendar. That way I can see where I'm overloading my calendar or bumping up too close to a vacation. This will help you spread projects out.
I use Google Calendar to do my long-term planning like appointments, but I like to plan my weeks using a hard copy calendar. I found this calendar that fits all my needs, and I think it'll fit your needs too.
Want more tips to get organized? Listen to Be a Better Lawyer episodes:
Create healthy boundaries.
Creating boundaries is another time saver. There are two of my favorite strategies.
- Don’t answer your phone unless you know who’s on the other line, and you need to talk to them. Answering the phone when you’re in the middle of a project splits your attention and wastes your time. It takes time to refocus your attention from one project to another. You decide when you can take a call.
- Leave a message on your voicemail that sets expectations, so people are less likely to leave multiple messages. Personally, I would let callers know I respond to email better, and give them my email address. I also let them know that I was in court Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, so I’m only able to return calls on Tuesdays and Thursdays. People are much more understanding when you can’t call them back right away. If you’re not in court, you can say something like, “Due to my high volume of casework, I can only return calls on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If this is an emergency, please dial “)” to speak to the receptionist.” Setting expectations is a great way to have happier clients, it keeps you from being distracted, and if it’s truly an emergency, your secretary will let you know.
Improve your legal writing.
Here are my best legal writing tips:
- If you weren’t assigned Plain English for Lawyers*, then you may need to brush up on what plain English means. Don’t use 10 works when 2 will suffice. Don’t say words like “utilized” when a word like “used” will do just fine. People already hate lawyers, why given them another excuse?
- Take a short online course in Westlaw or Lexis. You’ll look like a hero. Here’s one tip I have for you that will make you look like a pro to your co-workers: 1) Search for the relevant statute you want in Lexis/Westlaw; 2) press “Control + F” to open a search window; 3) type in the related search term, 4) hit “enter”; 5) find the relevant cases for that particular statute pop up. This easy trick is one a lot of people don’t know, and it’s come in handy more times than I can count for finding relevant case law I can cite.
- Don’t make it personal. It’s shocking the number of attorneys who make arguments personal with snarky comments that they think make them sound superior. It’s especially noticeable in briefs to the court. I once read a brief in which a defense counsel made personal statements about opposing counsel and the stupidity of their arguments. Hilariously, a justice on the appellate court reviewing the counsel’s brief escorted who defense counsel for taking aim at his opposing counsel in such an unprofessional way. People notice when you’re a jerk. Don’t do it.
- Details matter. Review your work for typos, inconsistencies in formatting, paginate, and don’t let a header be at the bottom of one page and the body of your argument start on the next. Every year I see new attorneys and legal interns who haven’t mastered these basics. When they come to me with all of these basics done right, I’m impressed. Learn it now.
How to be a Better Lawyer? Deal with Stress Before it Consumes You.
At 29 — and after doing trials for about a year — I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I definitely don't think it was a coincidence that two other women in my class were diagnosed with different cancers in that same period. I was fortunate, and lived to tell you my story. They were not so fortunate.
If we don't notice the signs I'm about to share with you, the stress will take it's toll one way or another whether it's a health issue or relationship issues.
One of the keys to being a successful lawyer is recognizing when you’re fostering certain behaviors to distract you from your feelings. Watch out for buffering. What’s buffering? It’s any unhealthy behavior you use to avoid your feelings.
If you’re over-eating, over-drinking, or over-working, this is a signal that you’re buffering to avoid.
I see searches for “least stressful law specialties,” but my advice is to do what’s calling to you. Yes, it’s important to get paid your worth. You likely paid into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for your law degree, and you’re worth every penny. I feel fortunate to have become a criminal prosecutor. I loved Criminal Procedure and Constitutional Law in law school, and becoming a prosecutor helped me fulfill my ideals pf public service and fairness. Although I loved being a prosecutor, I didn't let it define who I am. I’ve also cultivated interests outside of the law including hosting my podcast and being a life coach to lawyers.
Want more tips to deal with stress? Listen to these Be a Better Lawyer Podcast episodes:
It’s normal to feel the extra special stress of going to court.
There are a lot of lawyers with anxiety. If you fall into this category, you are completely normal.
We’re taught that we can muscle through these feelings. In my experience, it’s more productive to feel those feelings.
This is uncomfortable work because we’re taught from a young age to stuff those feelings down and get the job done. Unfortunately, those same teaching lead a lot of lawyers to burn out and substance abuse issues in their careers. Don’t let this be you.
“The most successful lawyers aren’t fearless. The most successful lawyers are scared and do what scares them anyway.”
If you’re like me, you want to represent your client to the best of your ability, and this means over-preparing. That’s a good thing. Just remember to take care of yourself while you’re doing it. What does this look like? For me, it looks like ordering healthy food that doesn’t take a lot of time to prepare and have it delivered to me. I may get a lot of healthy juices that I’m more likely to grab and go. It means scheduling yoga and meditating. For you it could look like a nightly bubble bath to relax. Find your thing and make it happen. You need to make yourself as important as your client.
Always improve your legal skills and abilities.
How do you become a better lawyer? Always be learning. In criminal law, the law is constantly changing. Not only that, but the California legislature doesn’t know how to craft laws, so it’s up to prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges to come to an agreement as to what the law means to facilitate court proceedings. If it weren’t for collaborative and settlement conference courts, the legal system would come to a stand still. That also means that we have to stay up to date and understand how we can protect the interests of those we serve. We do this by constantly improving our minds. Yes, I know you’re busy, but this is important. And so is this tip…
Always improve your personal skills and abilities.
Being a lawyer requires you work with people. It may even require that you learn to network.
Always assume the best in people until they've proven you wrong. When I worked as a prosecutor, lots of lawyers in my office told me how difficult it was to work with this lawyer and that lawyer. I decided early on that I'd make my decisions for myself.
Because I did, I had better relationships with the Defense Bar in my county than all the attorneys who complained about their “bad” experiences. Were there some attorneys you couldn't trust? Sure. That's true in any profession. But because I kept an open mind, I didn't allow other people's opinions overshadow my ability to build relationships.
Want to learn more about cultivating relationships? Listen to these episode of Be a Better Lawyer Podcast:
Find a mentor you trust.
If you're in a competitive environment, it's often difficult to find someone you trust. But if you want to improve faster, it requires asking for help.
That's why I created resources for you to not only optimize your practice but to develop one you enjoy.
Here's a few episodes of Be a Better Lawyer Podcast to help you on your way to intentionally designing a law practice you love.
Bookmark this page and be sure you're subscribed to Be a Better Lawyer Podcast on your favorite podcast app. New episodes are released every Thursday.
Now you have everything you need to learn how to be a better lawyer. You've got this.
All my best —