As a lawyer mentor, I once sat down to coffee with an outstanding law student – selected from a field of over 400 applicants – and newly recruited into a hard-to-get graduate law role. After some weeks in the job grappling with the gaps and disjunctions between law school and professional practice, he told me with not a little bit of exasperation, ‘I just don’t know how to be’ in this new world of legal practice!

For law graduates to know ‘how to be’ in the profession, the first thing to grasp is what you need to become. My answer in three words is: ‘a trusted adviser’.

In July 2016, the IAALS (Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System) published a brilliant report, Foundations for Practice: The Whole Lawyer and the Character Quotient. The key finding of the report was that ‘new lawyers need character’. And they need to show these character qualities right from the start. The report explores in depth the notion of ‘the whole lawyer’, of which doctrinal knowledge and technical skills are just two of many parts.

 

The survey of 24,000 US lawyers yielded clear findings that:

characteristics (such as integrity and trustworthiness, conscientiousness, and common sense), as well as professional competencies (such as listening attentively, speaking and writing, and arriving on time), were far more important in brand new lawyers than legal skills (such as use of dispute resolution techniques to prevent or handle conflicts, drafting policies, preparing a case for trial, and conducting and defending depositions)

Right from the first day on the job, the survey overwhelmingly endorsed a virtual consensus that new lawyers needed to display the following qualities:

  • keeping information confidential (96.1%)
  • arriving on time for meetings, appointments and hearings (95.4%)
  • honouring commitments (93.7%)
  • integrity and trustworthiness (92.3%)
  • treating others with courtesy and respect (91.9%)
  • listening attentively and respectfully (91.5%)
  • promptly responding to enquiries and requests (91%)
  • having a strong work ethic and putting forth best effort (88.1%)
  • taking individual responsibility for actions and results (82.2%)

Also significant was a new lawyer’s capacity for working with others, particularly:

  • working co-operatively and collaboratively as part of a team (72.9%)
  • expressing disagreement thoughtfully and respectfully (70.2%)

At first glance, the highlighted qualities referenced by the IAALS report might seem overwhelming – how to be all of those things even when just starting out in your career? But to simplify, the list all boils down to having the right mindset – of bringing the right attitude, of taking your career seriously.

The report also recognises that ‘wholeness’ in a lawyer is something to be built and developed over time. As Malcolm Gladwell popularized in his book, Outliers, it might take 10,000 hours or 10 years of challenging practice to achieve mastery in any particular domain – including achieving the status of ‘a trusted adviser’.

Even so, foundational character qualities are an essential place to start – for launching a trajectory towards building a legal career as ‘a trusted adviser’ – even if it might take 10 years of challenging lawyering to get there.

We are hearing repeatedly that this is the special kind of relationship that clients really want to find and pay for. And judges, the community of lawyers, and the public at large are entitled to expect this kind of reliability and trust for the rule of law to function at all.

In a world of rapid technological change, even for law – a ‘trusted adviser’ is not so easily replicated by Artificial Intelligence and ‘Smart Systems’. For now at least, this kind of career path seems uniquely human and future-proof.

So this answers the question, ‘what am I to become’?

The next question is, ‘how do I become it’?

Two things are essential. First, you will need to land a job. Knowing the importance of character helps with job interviews. Law students often worry about how to explain less than perfect academic results. In my experience, if you reach interview stage, then academic grades are no longer much of a focus. Interviewers are really looking to judge character, your capacity to work well with others and how you might grow in the job.

Secondly, the fastest route for law graduates to become trusted advisers is to work closely with…established ‘trusted advisers’. This is why Leo Cussen puts the mentoring relationship right at the heart of its program of Practical Legal Training (PLT). Leo has so many lawyer-mentors who have travelled through the legal landscape, who know the essential character and performance qualities that students need to have in their toolkit, and who create the reflective space to allow confidence to grow in a safe learning space. In short, great mentoring is character building.

Craig Collins, Senior Mentor and Lawyer, Leo Cussen Centre for Law

Watch our Zoom recording that occurred on the 6 October here and see how the practical nature of the Leo course is complemented by our mentor program. Leo PLT is real experience with real lawyers. What better way to start your journey towards becoming not just another lawyer, but a trusted adviser?

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