Rising Stars: what it takes to succeed in the law

The Lexpert team has been spending many hours over the last few months or so working on our Rising Stars event which took place on Nov. 30. In our latest issue of Lexpert we profiled the 46 winners, who are all 40 or under but have achieved a great deal in their career already.

We also did video interviews with the winners – which we aired during the event (and will be putting online soon for everyone to see). We had a wide array of winners from across Canada – in-house counsel (at both companies and a non-profit), law firm lawyers and a legal academic.

There were definitely some things all the winners said that most people would have predicted – e.g. to succeed you have to work hard, love your work and be efficient with your time. But there were some things that were also consistently voiced, but perhaps a bit more surprising, about what it takes to succeed in your line of work. It is something that young lawyers, or lawyers who are struggling in their work, would do well to pay heed to.

Listening: Most lawyers are good at talking, like when they are arguing their case. Even the introverted lawyers (and there are a surprising number of successful introverted lawyers) tend to be very confident and focused when they are given the proper platform to express themselves. But what fewer lawyers are really good at is listening. Listening often means hearing why clients have come to you, and really understanding what their particular issue means to them. What appears to a lawyer as a legal issue may be a purely business issue to a client, where the law really is irrelevant. Where one client may want you to use all of your resources to solve a legal issue, another client with an identical issue may want a brief – and not necessarily comprehensive – answer. A successful lawyer figure out how to listen properly to figure out what each client really wants.

Patience: unless they are on a second career, lawyers start working after having been in school for  many years. In an academic environment, the payoff for working hard – good grades – is achieved quickly. The most you have to wait to find  out how well on your assignment you did is a few weeks. But as new lawyers enter the workforce, the days of instant feedback are over. Sure, law firms try to provide feedback to their junior lawyers regularly and consistently. But the truly successful lawyer will not assume this is always going to happen. And the true mark of success – not drafting a good memo or factum, but getting the good clients – will only come after years of hard work. The lawyers who do the best understand this and realize they are not going to be rewarded for their efforts right away.

Balance: lawyers work very hard, often working late into the night to meet a deadline. But the lawyers who excel the most have many other facets to their life – whether it is their family life, their pro bono efforts or the junior lawyers they mentor (and ideally all of the above). As one “Rising Star” pointed out – it is all the non-legal parts of your personality that often get you a job out of law school, so those things disappear from your life when you start working, you won’t succeed in the long term. And client loyalty often occurs when there is a personal connection. If you have no life outside your work, it will be hard for your client to connect with you.

These skills were consistently cited by the Rising Stars – and it is no doubt what differentiated them from all of their equally intelligent colleagues.

Tim Wilbur

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