Have I made it? What is success as a lawyer

Discussion

I can tell you, with total confidence and from the heart, that success has nothing to do with glamour, salary packages or designer outfits.

If I were to ask you right now ‘what does success as a lawyer mean to you?’ – what would you say?

Glamour.

A large six-figure salary.

High profile cases.

Making partner.

Harvey Specter and Tom Ford suits.

Christian Louboutin heels…

It can be easy to lose perspective and become caught up in the hype associated with lawyers and legal practice, especially with all the glitzy television drama these days about being a lawyer and the high-flying lifestyle that comes with it (I am thinking along the lines of shows such as ‘Suits’ and ‘The Good Wife’).

I can tell you, with total confidence and from the heart, that success has nothing to do with glamour, salary packages or designer outfits. Success is about understanding your values as a person, being clear on your responsibilities and duties as a lawyer (to the court, to your client, and to your opponents) and then living by your values and discharging your obligations to the best of your ability – Every. Single. Day.

It’s challenging. It’s hard work. It can be exhausting and frustrating, and even overwhelming. But it’s rewarding, fulfilling and at the end of the day knowing that you have contributed to society in such a meaningful way – could you ask for anything more?

I am often asked by students ‘what does it take to be a successful lawyer’. My answer is always the same. Grit. Determination. Hard work. Integrity and Compassion. It’s about so much more than your academic transcript or your well-developed CV. It’s about the sort of person you are, the sort of person you want to be, your commitment to helping others and your ability to trust yourself and be true to your values. Without this you will almost inevitably fall short.

Several years ago, I acted for clients (husband and wife) who had been to many lawyers before me. It wasn’t a big case in terms of my practice, but it was big to the clients – it was their livelihood being impacted. I agreed to act for them. I trusted my instincts. They needed help and I couldn’t in all good conscience turn them away. We worked hard and ended up settling the matter without going to hearing, on terms favourable to the clients such that they didn't lose anything and were able to move forward with their lives. They came to see me after the matter was over and told me that they were almost at the point of losing all hope, just before they came to our firm – that not only had we settled the matter for them on terms that they regarded a success, but that they would never forget how we treated them with such kindness and respect, despite their limited financial means.

It resonated with me then, and it still does today. As a lawyer, we are in a position of privilege in that we can have a profound impact on the lives of people who genuinely need our help.

Practicing the law is about so much more than glamour and prestige. It’s about people, their livelihoods and their liberty, and the role that we play in preserving that.

Here’s my advice on how to become a successful lawyer:

  1. Know your values, and know yourself – in times of uncertainty or doubt, be guided by your values and trust in yourself. You won’t regret it.
  2. Find a Mentor – someone who you admire and respect. Watch what they do, and how they do it. Pay attention to how they conduct themselves and how they treat people, especially their opponents. If you do this you will be well on your way.
  3. Choose carefully – understand the values and reputation of a firm/workplace before you apply/agree to work there. If the firm’s values don’t align with your own, keep looking.
  4. Work hard and learn from your mistakes – you won’t get it right every time. That’s ok. Learn from your mistakes, be committed and don't give up.
  5. Treat people well – you don’t have to be embroiled in conflict to be a good lawyer. Even in contested litigation matters, you can fight fair without being disrespectful and rude to your opponent. In a criminal law trial, you don’t have to demoralise the other side to make your point. The way you treat people will inform your reputation and it will follow you throughout your career. Remember that.

Don’t lose sight of who you are or what the practice of law is about – don’t become caught up in the hype and notion of glamour. Be true to yourself. It will serve you well. At the end of the day, that’s what life, not just legal practice, is all about.

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  Director, GDLP/Page Contact:  Program Coordinator, GDLP