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How top lawyers become so financially successful

How top lawyers become so financially successful

It’s an interesting question. All of them went to law school, and all of them passed their exams, so why the stark differences?

Frazer Pugh
Sep 28, 2021

Table of Contents

Why is it that some lawyers are able to charge $1,500 per hour while others are stuck on less than $100? 

It’s an interesting question. All of them went to law school, and all of them passed their exams, so why the stark differences? 

It all depends on what happens next in their careers. Some lawyers stagnate, earning incomes on the low end of the range, while others find ways to fly.

In this post, we take a look at what top lawyers do to become successful. Some of the concepts will be quite surprising to you.

They accept failure

Failing is never popular. Everyone wants to win - especially in the highly competitive legal sector. But failure is part and parcel of the work. There will be some cases that you just can’t win for your clients.

However, failure isn’t fatal. In fact, it is a great way to improve your skills and aptitude. Often, failing increases the motivation to succeed in the future. You go away, lick your wounds, and resolve to come back stronger, learning from your mistakes.

If you look at the careers of many of the most successful lawyers, you will find that they are littered with failures. Top lawyers have spent many years fighting losing battles in the courtroom and figuring out ways to resolve the issues that they face. They never give up but always keep coming back for more.

They remain positive

Clients appreciate lawyers who appear willing to help them. They want to be around professionals who have their best interests at heart. After all, winning or defending their cases is extremely important to them on a personal level. Failing to get a conviction or being convicted could dramatically change the course of their lives.

Many middling lawyers, however, don’t appreciate this aspect of their work. They think that they are providing a legal service and that is all they are doing. But it is so much more than that. Clients want a lawyer with compassion, empathy and the energy to see their case through to completion. They’re looking for somebody who will be a genuine advocate for them.

Lawyers who adopt a holistic approach soon develop a reputation for themselves. More people want to use their services, and this demand puts up the value of their time, sometimes to stratospheric levels.

They’re innovative

The legal field is not stagnant - it’s changing all the time. New innovations are disrupting how lawyers work and the tasks that they perform. Artificial intelligence, for instance, is making its presence felt in areas such as document retrieval. 

The top lawyers are fully aware of these developments and using them to their advantage. Sometimes, they find that they can increase their pay without increasing their rates. They still charge clients by the hour, but they are able to use tools that increase their productivity. In other words, they are able to get more done in less time. 

They’re persistent

Lawyers tend to rise to glory after winning difficult cases. However, these challenging victories rarely happen by chance. Instead, they’re usually the result of sheer persistence.

Most lawyers will throw their hands up in the air when they think a case is impossible. They will apologize to their clients and tell them that there is no way forward.

But persistent lawyers are different. They keep fiddling around until they find something that will deliver a better outcome for their client.

In many cases, the result of persistence isn’t revolutionary. A top lawyer might simply get a judge to agree to commute a sentence from ten years to eight, but that’s still something. Clients pay attention to results such as these because two years is still a long time.

How can lawyers become more persistent? Mainly it is a function of your personality. Some lawyers just can’t let cases drop. However, if you are struggling to adopt this mindset, remind yourself of the long-term payoffs. The most persistent lawyers also tend to be the most successful.

They’re good writers

Lawyers operate in a human arena where their choice of words can have a tremendous impact on outcomes. A good lawyer can use language to sway the jury’s decision one way or another. A bad lawyer can do the opposite.

Therefore, it’s critical that lawyers develop their writing and speaking skills. A lawyer who can communicate forcefully and effectively on behalf of their client is much more likely to succeed.

Becoming a better writer, though, is a challenge. It seems easy from the outside, but when you actually try putting pen to paper yourself, you discover that it is incredibly difficult. Getting the flow right while also conveying your ideas is a skill that takes many years to develop.

Stephen King is arguably a modern-day master of manipulating the written word to convey meaning. That’s why some legal coaches actually recommend that lawyers read his work. He was a way of using words with beautiful tempo and rhythm - probably the reason his work is so popular. 

They read up on everything

Successful lawyers also understand the value of reading widely. The purpose of consulting a lot of different materials isn’t to become a walking encyclopedia. Instead, it is to broaden your thinking and develop new methodologies.

Resources, such as Practical Law from Thomson Reuters, are readily available, so virtually any lawyer can do it. But it takes time. Try to view it as an investment that will let you perform better for your clients in the future.

They develop better verbal communication skills

Written and verbal communication tend to be highly correlated. However, most people are better at one than the other.

If your verbal communication skills are lacking, there are many ways you can improve them.

  • Think before speaking: As a professional lawyer, nothing is stopping you from considering your words before you open your mouth. In fact, many clients will expect it. 
  • Be concise: Don’t add unnecessary words to pad out your sentences. Avoid fillers, such as “if you know what I mean” and “at the end of the day.” Focus purely on delivering the meaning. 
  • Tailor your language to your client: For instance, if you’re talking to somebody with a PhD, then don’t shy away from introducing legal jargon: the chances are that they will understand it. However, if you’re talking to a young person, you might want to explain things in plain English, minus all the complications. 
  • Keep your tone in check: Lawyers should always speak as the servants, no matter what their clients have allegedly done. Therefore, the tone needs to be respectful, candid and compassionate. 
  • Actively listen: Even if you know where the conversation is going, it pays to listen to your clients actively. Don’t steamroll them with immediate answers. Instead, consciously absorb their stories and concerns. Actively listening includes avoiding jumping to conclusions, paying close attention, and waiting for the other person to finish speaking before interrupting. 
  • Be confident: If you mumble while you are talking, you communicate a lack of confidence. Furthermore, if you lack confidence, people are less likely to take you seriously, cutting your potential paycheck. Fortunately, speaking confidently is something you can practice. The more you do it, the more you get used to it. Eventually, adopting a commanding tone becomes second nature. 
  • Be authentic: Skilled communicators don’t try to rig conversations. Instead, they remain authentic throughout. But how can they do this? It all comes down to the work they do internally on their personality. The authentic person is happy with who they are and doesn’t try to hide. Clients can detect this and feel safer when they do.

They provide balanced answers

While top lawyers get results, they are always matter-of-fact with their clients about what they can achieve. In other words, they give clients a balanced view of their case, where it is likely to succeed, and where it may fall down. The best lawyers will often outright reject a case if they can’t meet the needs of their clients in the way they expect. Sugarcoating a case will backfire.

They maintain their integrity

Situations will often tempt lawyers to take shortcuts and behave unethically. However, top lawyers understand that this is a false economy. The short-term gains of dishonesty are often outweighed by the long-term benefits of being trusted and respected. Yes, it is tempting to cover up mistakes, but top lawyers don’t do it. They’re always open.

They build a professional network

Lastly, the best lawyers invest a considerable length of time building their networks. They know that cultivating relationships with other professionals is likely to help them move firm, get better positions and become renowned by their peers.

What’s interesting about top lawyers is that they look both up and down the hierarchy when building their networks. They know that younger lawyers are just as valuable as older ones as these will become the decision-makers in the future.

Some lawyers - particularly those who work with businesses - can spend up to 50 percent of their time networking. Building relationships with firms can be exceptionally lucrative long term.

Frazer Pugh | I work in the investment management sector as a professional. Previously, I advised top financial services companies on balance sheet management, portfolio planning, and valuations as a consultant. I am currently pursuing a part-time MBA at Melbourne University, where I am a lecturer in accounting and hedge fund strategies, as well as a mentor/coach in a part-time equity analysis initiative. I have a bachelor's degree in economics, a master's degree in finance, and am a Chartered Accountant. I enjoy instructing and assisting others in achieving their objectives.


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