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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

Being a great lawyer is not about legal knowledge

Back in the days, within a few months after I had graduated with honors for Law School, I applied for a junior management position at a blue chip company. Part of the recruitment process was a one-day talent assessment. Part of this assessment was a job simulation in which I had the role of a manager who has to fire a senior employee that had been with the company for more than 20 years.

Fresh from university, with all relevant employment law still top of my head, I worked my way through an imaginary checklist and bluntly told the employee that he was fired. It will come as no surprise that I failed the test and did not start my career at that company. Rightly so.

By only focusing on the legal aspects of the employment termination, I had completely ignored the human aspect of firing someone who had been with the company for two decades. My approach lacked the empathy that is needed in real world situations.

Although I did not get the job, this experience taught me a valuable lesson and I have never made the same mistake again. He who focuses only on the legal aspects runs the risk of totally missing the point.

How clients select lawyers

Lawyers like to believe that clients come to them because of their superior knowledge of the law. In reality this is seldom the case. For clients, knowledge of the law is a given, just like every doctor is expected to have the medical knowledge. Clients select a lawyer not because of legal knowledge, but because of knowledge of best-market-practice as it comes to distribution of risks, and because of the lawyer’s human skills.

Now that we at TGO Consulting have had some extra time at hand because of the global travel restrictions, we thought it would be interesting to employ an algorithm and analyze client feedback and comments from the Chambers directory. We ran all ‘Chambers Review’ sections on individual lawyers (as published by Chambers on their website), through the algorithm. It looked for word-combinations that were describing legal-skills and those that were describing 'human-skills'. It turned out that in a whopping 80% of all comments, clients were praising a lawyer for 'human skills' rather than legal skills. A typical client feedback was 4 times more likely to look like this: "X is a very calm lawyer who is focused on the clients' interests. He's practical, solution-oriented and understands the industry", than: “X is a brilliant lawyer that has a great knowledge of the law”

Distribution of Risks

Clients don’t hire lawyers to explain all legal roadblocks. Clients hire lawyers to help find solutions that will bring their business forward. Most contracts contain serious imperfections as any litigator will tell you. The point is that a ‘perfect’ contract probably will never get the signature from both parties. Propelling your client’s business in the real world will always mean making compromises. The best lawyer from the client’s perspective is the one that has the best knowledge of industry standards and market best-practices as it comes to a fair distribution of risks between parties. This is not predominantly a legal issue.

This is not only applicable to transactions, but equally to litigation and advice. A large part of litigation has a ‘strategic’ component and is meant to make a statement more than expected to actually be winning in court. The majority of cases is settled between parties before a verdict has been reached. Even legal advice is expected to deliver practical solutions, rather than an overview of obstacles down the road.

We need a change in paradigm

The difference between highly regarded successful lawyers and the ones that are just average is, as demonstrated, not in the knowledge of the law. It is in understanding the business environment of the client, and understanding the strategic interests of the client, the knowledge of industry standards and best-market practice as it comes to distribution of risks. Successful lawyers help propel their clients’ business forward. Successful lawyers are perhaps business enablers more than anything else.

May I ask you to reflect on this for a moment. Understanding this will mean that in order to become more successful, some things will fundamentally have to change: Recruitment needs to select on other criteria than focusing on the highest marks. Once onboarded, lawyers will need to be educated and trained in a different way. The internal communication will need to change and focus on the wider economy and on sharing best-market-practice, rather than legal updates and case law. Partner criteria will need to be different. These insights will lead to a change in paradigm. From legal centric to client centric. Not as a platitude, but as the origin and the core.


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