What makes a good lawyer today? 

What Makes A Good Lawyer
What makes a good lawyer today concerns the intersection of several varied skills, such as ethical integrity and technological competence.

The title of this article – What makes a good lawyer today? – is a question that itself begs a lot of questions. I’m not sure there’s enough room on the internet to answer all of them. So, today, I’m going to focus on two of the main questions that stem from the original.

First and foremost, we need to ask ourselves who is asking the question. The truth is, different people have very different views of what makes a good lawyer (according to a popular joke, for example, the only good lawyer is one who resides at the bottom of the ocean). 

The audiences we’ll examine today – clients, colleagues, and judges – don’t have that much disdain for lawyers. But they do have slightly different views on what makes a good one a good one. So, we’ll begin by attempting to answer the question through those various lenses.

Secondly, we’ll focus on the last word of our principal question – what makes a good lawyer today? To answer that, we’ll contrast today’s lawyers with those practicing 20 years ago.

Doing this tells us quite a bit about the evolution of the profession and the different skills that today’s lawyers need in order to be considered “good” at their profession. 

With all of that said, let’s dive into this intriguing question.

Who’s asking?

As noted, different people need different things from a “good lawyer.” Of course, there is some obvious overlap between the groups we’ll look at today (e.g., strong ethics and communication skills).

Consequently, I won’t repeat “good lawyer” characteristics that matter to all the groups. In fact, it’s safe to assume that what matters to clients matters to colleagues, what matters to your colleagues matters to judges, and so on. 

Let’s begin by looking at how your clients view “good lawyers”:

From the client’s perspective

Clients understandably gauge the effectiveness of their lawyer from a quality of service perspective. These factors reflect both on the tangible outcomes of their experiences and the qualitative aspects of their professional relationship.

Communication and accessibility: A good lawyer communicates clearly, timely, and in an understandable manner. Clients want to be informed about the case’s progress and potential outcomes.

Accessibility is equally crucial to clients; a lawyer should be responsive to calls, emails, or messages, and should strive to make clients feel supported and valued throughout the process.

Understanding strategy and goals: A lawyer’s ability to understand the client’s goals and devise a tailored strategy to achieve them is fundamental.

This involves a thorough grasp of the client’s situation, an accurate assessment of how the law impacts that situation, and a strategic approach that aligns with the client’s best interests and desired outcome.

Experience and expertise: Competence in the specific area of law pertinent to the client’s case is essential. A good lawyer has a solid track record, relevant experience, and is up-to-date with the latest legal developments and precedents that could affect the outcome of the case.

Ethical standards: Integrity and professionalism are the bedrock of legal practice. A lawyer should demonstrate unwavering commitment to ethical standards and fiduciary duties, including (but certainly not limited to) confidentiality and the duty to represent the client’s interests zealously without crossing ethical lines.

Transparent billing practices: Good lawyers are upfront about their billing practices. Among other things, that means the lawyer provides a clear, detailed roadmap for how the client will be charged for work and later provides invoices with explanations for actual charges.

Transparency in billing fosters trust and ensures that clients feel their investment is justified by the service they receive.

From a colleague’s perspective:

No one graduates from law school wanting to work with a bunch of “bad” lawyers. After all, when you’re bonded together within the four walls of a law firm, your professionalism directly impacts the attorneys around you. So, if you want your co-workers to consider you to be “one of the good ones,” here’s what you’ll strive for:

Legal acumen and competence: Your colleagues want to work with the best. Thus, they’ll assess your grasp of legal principles, your ability to construct compelling arguments, and your command of relevant laws and precedents. Right or wrong, much of this analysis will begin with where you went to law school and how you ranked among your graduating class. As you progress throughout your career, however, those things will matter less than your day-to-day competence.

Professionalism: Professionalism is a multifaceted concept that matters to other lawyers more than the public might think. Professionalism includes the lawyer’s demeanor in court, their respect for deadlines, and their courtesy towards other legal professionals, including opponents. A good lawyer is known for their professionalism even in adversarial situations.

Business development capabilities: Let’s be honest – many lawyers are in the profession to make money and rainmakers are the people who tend to keep a firm thriving. Strong rainmakers have more than just client-attraction skills, however. They’re also known to have the empathy, communication skills, and legal prowess to keep clients coming back and referring others.

Competitive edge: Lawyers are a competitive bunch. In fact, back when I sat on hiring committees for law firms, I often asked whether candidates had a background in sports. The truth is, lawyers like to surround themselves with others who value winning.

Contribution to the legal community: Strong law firms have strong ties to the community. Thus, lawyers who seek out those connections through things like publications, presentations, or participation in community activities (both within the legal community and the greater community at large) will also have great value to their colleagues.

From a judge’s perspective

A judge’s perspective on determining whether someone is a good lawyer is a bit more complicated. Judges tend to focus on both the lawyer’s adherence to legal protocols and their ability to effectively represent their clients within the courtroom. Here are some of the key aspects judges might consider:

Respect and courtroom demeanor: Judges value lawyers who display respect towards the court, opposing counsel, and parties involved. This includes punctuality, appropriate attire, and a respectful tone of voice. Professionalism in the courtroom is a fundamental aspect of a lawyer’s practice that judges notice.

Advocacy skills: Effective advocacy is something judges have long valued in quality attorneys. It involves presenting facts and legal arguments in a clear, concise, and logical manner. Judges look for lawyers who can advocate for their clients’ positions effectively, making persuasive arguments and responding adeptly to questions from the bench.

Preparation and organization: There may be nothing more annoying to a judge than a lawyer who is unprepared for court. The extent to which a lawyer is prepared for court proceedings is evident through their familiarity with the case details, organization of documents, and readiness to present arguments and evidence. Ignore this tip at your own peril.

Understanding what a particular judge wants: Different court systems and the particular judges within them do a lot to communicate what they want from the attorneys who appear in their courtrooms. Don’t be the attorney who shows up not knowing the local rules or the local-local rules of your particular judge. If your opponent knows the rules and you don’t … well, you don’t need a judge to tell you how that is going to play out.

How is a good lawyer today different from a good lawyer 20 years ago?

The law has always been an honored profession, but the last two decades have seen accelerated changes that are reshaping what it means to be a good lawyer – especially when compared to what that meant 20 years ago. 

Sure, the core qualities of legal acumen, ethical standards, and advocacy remain unchanged; however, the context in which lawyers operate has transformed significantly. Here are some of the “new” factors that contribute greatly to the making of a “good” lawyer in today’s environment:

Technological proficiency

Today, a good lawyer must be adept with technology. In fact, the ABA Model Rules and most state professional responsibility rules now require as much. 

Digital communication tools, legal software for research, case management systems, and electronic discovery have become integral to legal practice. And I haven’t even mentioned the impact of AI on the legal industry yet.

Twenty years ago, these technologies were emerging, if they had been thought of at all; now, they are growing increasingly indispensable. 

The modern lawyer navigates technology to interact with clients, submit documents to the court, and collaborate with colleagues from anyplace on the globe.

Global perspective

Globalization has expanded the scope of legal practice beyond measure. Today’s good lawyers need a broader understanding of international laws, treaties, and cross-border transactions. This is a huge contrast to the practice of law just two decades ago, when a more localized focus could suffice for most offices. 

Today, even local clients may have manufacturers, customers, or suppliers located in just about any continent. Thus, the ability to navigate legal issues across jurisdictions is increasingly valuable.

Adaptability and continuous learning

The pace of change in laws, technology, and client expectations is rapid. Don’t believe me? Just look at the evolution of privacy laws as modern technology has infiltrated all aspects of life and business.

Good lawyers today must demonstrate an ongoing commitment to learning and adapting to new legislation and societal expectations – and this is true today even more so than in the past. In particular, this includes staying abreast of developments in areas like cybersecurity, the aforementioned data privacy, and environmental law.

Diversity and inclusion

Fortunately, today’s legal profession places greater emphasis on diversity and inclusion. Finally, our industry seems to be recognizing that diverse perspectives enhance legal practice and advocacy. 

Consequently, a good lawyer now is not only skilled at practicing law, but also actively contributes to creating an inclusive environment that reflects the diversity of society.


So, as you can see, the question – What makes a good lawyer today? – is as complicated as it is encouraging. Today’s lawyers have a greater opportunity than ever to contribute to the greater good of society and the world.

Nonetheless, it still takes a focus on the foundational things that brought us this far.

Clients seek clear communication, strategic acumen, and ethical integrity. Colleagues value professionalism, competence, and a collaborative spirit.

Judges prioritize respect, courtroom advocacy, and meticulous preparation.

Technological proficiency and a global perspective have become indispensable, reshaping the practice of law. Adaptability, continuous learning, and a commitment to diversity and inclusion are now integral.

As the profession evolves, the essence of being a good lawyer lies in embodying these multifaceted qualities while staying rooted in the foundational principles of justice, service, and ethical conduct.

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