Dishonest, immoral, money-grubbing, opportunistic, calculating, uncaring, self-centered, Machiavellian, narcissistic — these are just a few of the personality traits that so many people associate with attorneys. Whether you love ‘em or hate ‘em, you can’t deny the fact that lawyers get a pretty bad rap, at least in pop cultural portrayals.
Of course, no group of people can be painted with such a broad brush. Lawyers come from all walks of life, champion many deserving causes, and do good work for their clients. Yes, there are some greedy and cold-hearted individuals, but that’s true of almost every profession.
So what personality traits does it take to tackle law school, pass the bar exam, and become a successful attorney? We spoke to experienced litigator Ralph Chapa to get his take on the topic.
1. A Way with Words
Expertly crafted prose, whether it is in the form of a movie script, novel, blog post, or closing statement, has the power to change minds and hearts. An excellent trial lawyer, in particular, needs to have a flair for writing. She should be able to craft a compelling argument, tap into jurors’ emotions, and present succinct reasons for her client’s actions. Even when dealing one-on-one with a client, or brokering a settlement in a board room, an attorney should be articulate and well-spoken. Ralph Chapa, who understands the necessity of an affinity for language in the law, says that many people discount this attribute or give it less credit than it deserves.
We sometimes hear about “aggressive attorneys”. In reality, what those folks are talking about is usually assertiveness, rather than straightforward aggression. What’s the difference? Ralph Chapa says that assertiveness is making oneself heard and communicating with conviction, but also with respect. Aggressive people, on the other hand, often attack their adversaries verbally, sling mud, or cross the line of human decency all in the name of winning. Assertiveness is people-forward and can get the job done just as effectively but without causing ill will.
Perseverance is another key quality for future attorneys to display. If they don’t have the determination to get up eight times after being knocked down seven, it’s not likely that they’ll make it through law school, let alone go on to a successful law career.
According to Ralph Chapa, perseverance also serves a practicing attorney well. Learning from failure, applying the lessons, and never calling it quits until there’s no other option — those are essential aspects of winning cases and changing clients’ lives.
Lawyers? Compassion? Absolutely, says Ralph Chapa. Lawyers have to be able to understand what their clients are experiencing, in order to argue on their behalf and advocate for their rights. A keen sense of the wide range of human emotions, and the ability to step into any of those emotions to gain clarity, will help distinguish brilliant lawyers from the mediocre.
Compassion and the willingness to look at a situation from every angle and perspective can also help an attorney formulate his approach. After all, he needs to anticipate what his adversary will feel, and how they will react, in order to craft an effective long-term strategy for winning a case.