In each field of law, any attorney who wishes to be successful must possess certain skills and character traits which will enable him or her to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack of attorneys. These skills vary with the fields of law. Organizational and transaction skills are most advantageous for the business planning attorney, whereas technical and scientific knowledge will enable the patent attorney to succeed. Civil litigation attorneys should also aim to achieve or posses certain skills which will assist them in attracting and retaining clients, winning cases and potentially making new law. Following is a list of the 10 most important qualities that a civil litigation attorney should possess in descending order.
10. Knowledge of the Rules of Evidence:
Many civil cases often turn on the admissibility or inadmissibility of a certain piece of evidence. Many practicing attorneys fail to have a proper understanding of the rules of evidence, and lack the knowledge of how and when to object and how to answer an objection. Often times, failure to object or preserve an issue for appeal can cost the client significantly more in legal fees, or even worse, cause the client to lose the case. In addition, an attorney with a mastery over the rules of evidence can use them as either a shield or a sword in admitting or barring important evidence.
An essential element of attracting business is the manner in which an attorney projects him or herself. Confidence is more than mere hollow bravado or misplaced self-assurance . Confidence conveys to the client, judge and opposing counsel that you have a complete handle of the case and can control how and where it flows. As part of projecting an air of confidence it is first necessary to read your audience and adjust your behavior accordingly. A client does not want an attorney who simply offers them options for them to choose. A client wants an attorney as a true advocate, one who can give them an answer and a firm and confident recommendation. Without confidence in their attorney, a client’s trust for that attorney will decrease, and the potential of repeat business is small.
8. Organizational Skills
While not the most important skill, especially for the experienced litigator, organizational skills are important, both for efficiency and the image one leaves on clients. No client is looking for an attorney who appears disheveled without an idea of where certain documents may be located within the mound of papers on their desk. Litigators are not generally the most organized attorneys, but it is important to take the extra time to organize files and work areas. The organization will project to the client that you are in control and will also allow you to use your time in an efficient manner.
Too often, attorneys are inclined to tell a client what they want to hear, rather than what they should hear. Appeasing a client with an incorrect or misleading answer may make that client happier for that moment, but will cost you in the end. Honesty includes telling a client when it is the type of case that you do not typically handle, while referring them to another qualified attorney. Losing this business might hurt in the short term, but that client will remember you when they face an issue that you have a firm grasp or specialization in. Honesty, as a matter of policy and client relations, should be of utmost importance.
6. Ability to Learn
Along with being honest, an attorney should strive to never lose the ability to learn about a new area of the law. Most clients have come to you to deal with their specific and particular problem, and view it as a hassle and waste of time if you must refer them to another attorney. Upon assessing the client you must first decide whether their problem is in an area of the law in which you can educate yourself in a relatively short period of time. Only when the new area is so specialized that you would do them a disservice should you refer the client to other counsel. As students of the law, we must never forget how to learn new areas of the law. The law will always change, but it is the attorney who can always analyze and interpret the law who will remain successful.
5. Clearly Explained Fee System
Some of the most common complaints made regarding one’s attorney stems from compensation disputes. To avoid this, it is always necessary to put in writing and clearly explain to the client the method of billing, whether it is hourly or contingency billing. Additionally, many billing disputes arise when there is a discrepancy in the understanding of the client regarding whether the fee is taken before or after taxes. A clearly explained and detailed fee agreement accomplished in the first intake meeting can avoid many of the post case disputes, and can also help to avoid potential complaints being filed with the state disciplinary committee.
4. Negotiation Skills
The vast majority of cases never appear before a jury, but the willingness to bring a case to trial is often a factor which can spur settlement negotiations. If you are capable and willing to take any case to trial, defendants, and most notably, defendant insurance companies, will initiate the negotiation process. When negotiating, it is necessary to do so in good faith, but one must be sure to keep in mind the goal of getting the best deal possible for a client. Studies have shown that the cooperative, as compared to the aggressive combative negotiator, is able to achieve a more desirable settlement offer. Whatever your particular style, it is important to keep in mind that you will most likely deal with that person in your area of work again in the future, so good faith dealing is necessary to ensure appropriate behavior and offers in the future.
3. Interpersonal Skills
The need for honed interpersonal skills is not unique to the law, but its importance is greater for practicing attorneys than for most other professions. The civil litigator spends most days talking and meeting with colleagues, clients, judges and co-workers. Each relationship demands a separate and distinct set of interpersonal skills. Some of these relationships require management skills, while others require the ability to listen and respond meaningfully. Unlike transactional attorneys, civil litigators must be comfortable talking to people and must be able to get along with many different kinds of people. If a client does not personally like his or her attorney, they are less likely to return to that attorney in the future, sometimes regardless of the prior outcome.
Any litigator must possess the skills to persuade a judge, jury, client or opposing counsel regarding any particular issue. In any context, the power of persuasion is crucial. Whether it is trying to persuade opposing counsel that your case is stronger than it is, or persuading a client that a settlement offer is the best that they will get, the quality is of primary importance. If a case goes to trial, the side that wins is generally the most persuasive, absent a clear finding of law. Underlying the idea of persuasiveness is the ability to understand and relate to people. If you can identify and relate to your audience, persuading them simply consists of addressing their concerns and highlighting the advantages to your point of view. A mastery of the power of persuasion will result in success in the civil litigation field.
1. Ability to Clearly Communicate
So you have a great case, or a case that is winnable as long as people can understand your theory of law. What distinguishes successful from unsuccessful attorneys and cases is the attorney’s ability to communicate to the decision maker, be it the judge or the jury, the premise of the theory and the reason for selecting your proposed outcome. Communication is more important than persuasion or interpersonal skills or any other factor combined. The reason being is that communication underlies every important attribute that a successful civil litigation attorney must obtain. Understand who are communicating to and what the purpose of your communication is and you will be on your way to becoming a successful and much improved civil litigator.