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Thinking Like a Lawyer Is Not Enough To Succeed in the Best Law Jobs

Law school famously trains law students to learn how to “think like a lawyer.”

But that’s not enough to succeed in your legal career.

Today’s lawyer needs to do more than just “think” like a lawyer. Today’s lawyer must be able to do what needs to get done. In a lawyer’s career, this means that the lawyer must be able to pivot and learn new skills and adapt to new realities.

Attorneys must adapt to their clients—but they must do better at adapting to new worlds. Although the profession does evolve and adapt, it takes a while for a lawyer to embrace change (most adapt kicking and screaming). Junior attorneys who just came out of law school tend to be most well prepared to adapt because of the mere grit required from navigating law school and getting to the point of passing the bar.

At the heart of a successful lawyer are business development and customer service skills. If you think about who the rainmakers are at a firm, you will find that they are very different from the students who graduated at the top of their class in law school.

Successful law students tend to hear a lot of “yes” and become accustomed to working hard to obtain their “yes.” In practice, however, lawyers hear a lot of “no,” and it takes resolve to bounce back and keep going to the next opportunity. Only a handful of law students have developed that sort of resilience in law school. This is why you will find that most of the major rainmakers at firms are not the same lawyers at the firm who graduated at the top of their class. The soft skills required to be a rainmaker are sometimes diametrically opposed to the skill sets of those who are academics—succeeding beyond your grades is gritty.

Overall, lots of legal employers still seem to focus on such credentials as GPA over other more relevant skills sets to determine junior lawyers’ future success. Grit most certainly is and will continue to be required as the winds of change inform legal knowledge and technology. Grasping these and the softer skills of customer service breed success in the future for both younger lawyers and their employers.

Asian and Pacific American attorneys often find themselves in this awkward type of position in law school. One the one hand, they tend to be academically successful, and understand the formula of hard work meeting with opportunity. On the other hand, most come from personal experiences of overcoming doubt, stereotypes, and setbacks. Overall, Asian Americans have penetrated virtually every sector of the legal profession, but they are significantly underrepresented in the leadership ranks of law firms, government, and academia. The “Portrait” project has done a great job of capturing a snapshot of Asian and Pacific Americans in the legal profession, with the aim to describe the rise of Asian Americans in the law as well as the incentives and choices that influence their career paths. It is a project worth checking out and evaluating to determine what levels of adaptability and grit you might need to adapt into your own career success. See more:

The ABA has also created “The Grit Project” to help instill the necessary character and resolve to help attorneys perform successfully in their careers (because they noticed that performance in school does not seem to correlate with success in practice). The profession traditionally hires based on rankings and credentials, which makes it critical for two groups of students to understand different facts: for one set, students with successful academic credentials must develop the practice competencies required to succeed in the profession; for the other set, students must convey their grit well across to potential employers to communicate their value outside of their academic performance. See more

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