Top 10 tips on how to be an unfeasibly successful commercial lawyer

Lawyers spend an inordinate amount of their training learning the black letter of the law—the hard skills of practice. They often think that so-called soft skills are undeserving of their attention.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Your client—whether it be in-house or in private practice—will take technical competence as a given. You should be more than just a walking law book spouting out legal titbits like some soulless cyborg. If you are a commercial lawyer, it is increasingly the case that your client will expect you to act more like a businessman or woman, albeit it one with a solid background in the law and with certain professional obligations.

The other day, I spoke with James Harper, the in-house Head of Legal for LexisNexis UK, to see what tips he could offer to lawyers—both new and old—to fine-tune these soft skills. Here are his top ten tips (as translated by me): 

  • Be curious. Frankly, life is somewhat dull if you don’t take an interest in what goes on around you. The same could be said for business. Get to know the business that you advise and the key people within it. The ‘who, what, where, why and how’ of it all. We are not talking Mastermind territory here, but enough to properly understand what is going on. This is easier for in-house lawyers of course, but even lawyers in private practice can usually improve in this area.  Never accept 'that’s our policy' as an answer without understanding what the policy is, why it is in place and if there is room to change it—you’ll often be surprised! Learning this will make your arguments more convincing or enable you to find innovative routes to getting a deal done.
  • Be an enabler not an obstructer. The ‘computer says no’ school of lawyering is not going to build you a successful career in the long run (or short or medium run for that matter), nor is it going to help the business that you are advising. Admittedly, sometimes the answer is ‘no’, but the key, at the very least, is to try to find solutions as opposed to merely highlighting problems and then sitting on your hands and offering a Gallic style shrug.
  • Be nice. Now be careful with this one. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a patsy or let your colleagues or opponents walk all over you; rather it is the principle that ‘what goes round comes round’… eventually. If you become known as a bit of an idiot (for want of a better word) then you may eventually find it increasingly difficult to work with the people who matter or to get them to work with you. And if you aren’t naturally a nice person, perhaps look at being nice as enlightened self-interest. As with so many things in life, it is all about balance.
  • Be calm. There is never—ever—any reason to lose your temper. As before, you don’t want to be a patsy – the key is to be assertive but never aggressive.  Remember, the lawyer who loses their temper usually loses the argument, and certainly loses face in front of their clients. Learning how to bite your lip without the blood showing is a jolly useful tip—and less painful too.
  • Be imaginative. Business is about deals, not compartmentalising everything into tidy legal boxes. Don’t let the legal tail wag the commercial dog. Sometimes commercial problems arise and the legal solutions are far from obvious, leaving you scratching around for inspiration. Don’t be afraid to think out loud with your client. Talk through the commercial background to the deal. The solution may be closer to hand than you think.
  • Good enough is good enough. This is particularly the case with in-house lawyers. As a concept it seems counter-intuitive: lawyers constantly strive for perfection in the documents that they draft as a form of risk management. However, in many cases, risk management is more sophisticated than just checking for typos, formatting errors or making sure that the boilerplate provisions are all present and correct. Most lawyers would quietly admit that most documents that they produce will have errors in them, the vast majority of which will be utterly inconsequential. If time is tight and you have a thousand demands on your time, then concentrate on getting the provisions that matter right. 
  • Admit when you don’t know something. OK, if truth be told, don’t do this too often. That said, if what you know about TUPE could be written on the back of postage stamp, don’t try to blag your way around it. There is nothing wrong with saying ‘I don’t know the answer to that’ but this should always be followed up with their charming bedfellows: ‘but I can find out for you,’ or ‘I’ll get back to you later on that’.  And always follow up on these promises or you’ll get a reputation for knowing nothing and not doing anything about it—probably best avoided! 
  • Focus. Concede meaningless points and do this quickly. There are better things to do in life than argue the difference between ‘best endeavours’ and ‘reasonable endeavours’ in connection with a provision which simply does not matter.  If you have time to point score, then good for you, but the chances are the other side doesn’t, and even more likely your client (who is paying for you one way or another, whether you’re in-house or in private practice) certainly doesn’t! No-one will respect you for it.  Of course, sometimes the arguments do matter in which case, knock yourself out!  But if it doesn’t, move on. Be outcomes focussed. Concentrate on the ends and not the means.
  • Listen. Now this is perhaps a bit obvious. It would seem so but many lawyers still do like the sound of their own voice. That said, just talking until the other side’s ears bleed means that you may lose out on valuable insights (or you may just get their backs up). Our advice? Take time to engage in a proper two-way conversation—it’s the difference between hearing and listening.  What are they saying?  And, sometimes more importantly, what aren’t they saying?  Do not be afraid to wait it out or feel the need to fill those awkward silent moments - indeed, allowing the other side to speak without hindrance can often lead to them talking themselves round eventually…without you saying a word. Now there’s a tactic!
  • This isn’t easy. Remember that being a lawyer isn’t always easy and nor is it supposed to be. Your client is demanding and stressed and looking to you to fix that. You are stressed: you have 523 unread e-mails in your inbox; the phone is ringing off the hook; some of your problems seem utterly insolvable; and you haven’t actually seen daylight or been outside in days.  If you can do even half of what you wanted to do in your day then you are probably a rampant success. Sit back for 10 seconds, appreciate that fact, and then dive back into the madness!

So there you go. Knowing how busy you are we'll let you crack on with your (unfeasibly successful) day. Aren't we good?

As always, if you any thoughts on this post, do let us know. There's a nifty box below where you can pop in your thoughts or even questions if you are feeling bold...

PS James also chaired the recent Lexis®Webinar on drafting commercial contracts. If you have a subscription to this service, it is well worth having a peek. If you don't subscribe, details of how to do so are set out on that page.

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