The Bottom Line to Being a Better Lawyer
You are never so old that you can’t learn something new, or for that matter get better at something-witness William Shatner’s late in life transition from Sci-fi nerd hero to Emmy and Golden Globe winning star of the brilliant Boston Legal, or Australian Test Cricketer Chris Rogers scoring his maiden test century at 35 years of age.
It is this factor that keeps people working at getting better in all manner of things no matter how old they get. How many people-a lot of them lawyers-spend hours practicing their golf swing, and thousands of dollars a year on lessons and equipment, chasing their best performance? Well, given that the Australian Golf Industry Economic Report 2010 put the value of golf lessons at 25.5 Million dollars, the answer must be in the hundreds of thousands, with a fair few lawyers thrown in.
A more important question, however, would be how much time those lawyers spent trying to become better lawyers? The law is no different from any other activity in which there is competition-your performance is constantly under review, and your position under threat. Just as every year a new group of young cricketers start challenging Australia’s incumbent Test players for their spots, every year brings a new round of graduates to compete in the legal market-not to mention established lawyers looking to move up the ranks. In today’s legal market, being just as good as you were last year isn’t even standing still, it is going backwards at an ever-growing rate of knots.
I learnt this lesson many moons ago, when discussing things with a good mate (also a lawyer). He had been unhappy with how a case had gone and decided to be a better lawyer, in this case by purchasing a book on jurisprudence and reading it cover to cover. In those days, the idea of voluntarily reading a law text book was right up there with voluntarily undergoing root canal surgery-and reading every page? I hadn’t even done that in law school.
My friend convinced me to read the book, however, and I found out exactly how little I knew. I had been cruising along, running-and winning-a lot of trials, and had developed the view that I knew a great deal about the law, and it turned out that in many ways, I knew squat. By reading one book-and about the underlying principles of law, mind you, and not a specific subject-my trial plans and submissions improved drastically.
My mistake, of course, was that I didn’t take the lesson to heart and figured that reading one book was all it took. I was cruising happily along until I ran a case against a very good barrister (who, like many very good barristers, had started as a solicitor) who proceeded to wipe the floor with me. Thankfully, I got very lucky and cracked an admission out of one of his witnesses during cross-examination, and escaped with the win by the skin of my teeth.
The point is I came very close to losing a case that I should have won; if the case had been lost, it would have been the wrong result-and my fault. It was after that I did some thinking, and realised that while I put massive effort into being better at the sports I played-which made me no money at all-I spent no time at all getting better at the thing that put food on my table and cash in my pocket; I realised that being good at what I did (and thus being worthy of employment) meant making a constant and thorough effort to get better at it every day-so I did.
I began going to professional development seminars that looked useful, even if I didn’t need the points and even if my employer wasn’t paying. I read the Queensland Law Society journal Proctor pretty much cover to cover, and as more material became available on-line I signed up for updates and actually read them. I found out how easy it was to hear a learned judge speak on a topic at free lectures at the various law schools around the place-turned out what getting better required was basically time and effort.
The simplest thing I did was my mate and I started discussing the law and tossing around theories about it the same way we did with football, cricket and movies, and this type of knowledge sharing was invaluable. I recall my friend telling me about the case of Jones-v-Dunkel, an invaluable case for a trail lawyer to know; less than a month after I took his recommendation to read it, I was able to use it in a hearing to devastating effect, especially as it was clear my opponent had never heard of it.
One of the best things I did was volunteering to speak at Queensland Law Society conferences-nothing motivates you like the prospect of being wrong in front of a bunchy of nit-picking solicitors, so the incentive is there to prepare! Even better, teaching other people about a subject is a great way to learn about it yourself-and the science backs this up. Research by John F. Nestojko & Dung C. Bui & Nate Kornell &Elizabeth Ligon Bjork (Expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge in free recall of text passages, Published online: 21 May 2014# Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2014) shows that the strategies employed when preparing to teach others about a subject lead towards greater learning by the teacher.
The point is that all lawyers have a duty to do the best they can for their clients, and putting serious effort into being the best lawyer you can be goes a long way towards discharging it-and the good news is, it has never been easier. The Queensland Law Society Ethics Centre has a plethora of resources available on its website and now also provides bespoke Practice Support Services.
Bottom line? If you are a lawyer, you should stop wondering what you are going to do when you grow up and realise that this is it. The chances are pretty good that you will still be a lawyer in ten years’ time; the difference is, if you constantly upskill, you’ll be an employed lawyer.