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If the law is a jealous mistress, as Booth Tarkington wrote, litigation is the most unrelenting mistress of all. The hallmark of successful litigators is that they take on a client’s cause and make it their own — living and breathing that cause for months, often years, at a time. Sound like an attractive career path? For many, the answer is yes. When asked what kind of law they want to practice, a majority of law students answer “litigation.” They eagerly want to “get into court,” having grown up on “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice” and “Law and Order.” As they join law firms after graduation, though, these young lawyers soon must ask themselves: Do they have what it takes to become a successful litigator? Are the skills that they are missing ones that can be learned? There are clearly certain essential skills that a litigator must have to succeed. While many of these can be taught, others are innate and must be a part of who the lawyer is the day he or she walks through a law firm’s door. In deciding whether to elevate litigation associates to the partner level, law firms usually hold up a high bar, and associates often believe that the bar presents an almost impossible hurdle. In evaluating litigation associates for partnership, firms generally ask the following questions: Can the associate handle all aspects of a case, from planning its prosecution or defense to taking and defending the discovery, formulating a winning trial strategy, trying the case and arguing the appeal? Does the associate have the necessary ego to deliver a winning courtroom performance while at the same time keeping that ego in check to ensure that the focus of the case remains on the client? Can the associate make sound judgment calls, not only on vital case strategy issues but also on the dozens of smaller questions that complex commercial litigation throws at counsel every day? NECESSARY SKILLS There are other questions, too. Since most cases eventually settle, can the litigating associate perform like a transactional lawyer in negotiating creative settlements and then successfully papering them? Since the litigation of complex cases requires staffing by teams of lawyers, can the litigator work within a team structure, and does he or she have the leadership qualities required to put together cohesive teams that effectively utilize each team member’s strengths? Will the litigator be able to mentor younger lawyers, helping them to find their own strengths and develop their careers? Have the litigator’s clients been completely satisfied with the competence, efficiency and promptness of the litigator’s services? Has the litigator developed an expertise in a particular type of litigation — such as securities, antitrust, employment or insurance cases — that will attract clients in that area? Has the litigator demonstrated a consistent need for his or her services within the firm, as evidenced by client or partner demand? The standards for partnership are high, but for a talented, energetic and committed litigating associate, with typically seven, eight or nine years of intense work on dozens of cases, those standards can certainly be met, as evidenced by the number of litigating associates being made partner every year by the nation’s leading law firms. While the practice of law has changed dramatically in recent years, the specific abilities required to become a successful litigator have remained much the same over time. Despite the growth of trial advocacy programs in law schools, new law school graduates are not prepared to try cases. Instead, becoming a competent litigator continues to require an apprenticeship, working alongside those who have been doing it for years. With time, the young lawyer can develop into an effective litigator by observing the work of seasoned litigators, provided that he or she has the requisite qualities. What are these qualities? A litigator obviously needs intellect and analytical ability, along with absolute attention to detail. But more is required. A litigator must be able to persuade. He or she must be able to convince a judge or jury to decide for his or her client. And a litigator must be able to be persuasive both orally and in writing. This involves not only the ability to master and organize complex factual situations, but also to simplify them into a compelling case that has a theme that will interest (and resonate with) the judge or jury. Despite the unfortunate popular view that lawyers routinely engage in sharp practices, always “skating on the edge,” successful litigators know that their credibility with the judge and jury is the key to their ability to be able to persuade them. Watching experienced litigators is essential for a junior litigator. Experienced litigators are consistently on guard not to overstate the case, exaggerate the facts or misrepresent case precedent. They know that there is nothing that can undermine one’s case more quickly or completely than the loss of credibility. Successful litigators also must have sound judgment, the ability to make the right decisions on everything from complicated strategy issues to decisions seemingly as mundane as which witnesses to depose, and in what order. While preparing their cases for trial, litigators must continue to evaluate both their own and the other side’s case, not only to decide how best to present their case at trial, but also to advise the client whether to explore settlement. CLIENT RELATIONSHIPS ARE KEY A new term that has emerged in the practice of law is that of “partnering” with clients. While this has always been done, developing strong relationships with clients is more important than ever in building a successful litigation practice. Above all, litigators must focus on their client’s needs. To do that, they must develop a keen understanding of their client’s particular business and industry, and be sensitive to the problems that the client faces. And it is essential that litigators communicate with their client. This means not only discussing the facts with the client, but also the legal issues and strategy as well. It also means that, when the client calls, a good litigator drops everything and picks up the phone. If a call is missed, it should be returned promptly. Nothing irritates a client like an unreturned phone call. And nothing irritates a litigating partner as much as hearing that his or her associate has been unresponsive to the client. Clients choose their counsel differently today than they did in the past. Years ago, clients used to hire firms based on a firm’s overall reputation. Today, clients tend more often to look for a particular litigator who is experienced and has developed a name in the type of litigation the client is facing, without much regard to the litigator’s firm affiliation. Therefore, it is important for litigation associates to develop one or more areas of expertise that will assist them in attracting clients and, as a result, increase their value to their firms. Law firm partners are also on the lookout for associates who have a passion for their work. Nothing impresses partners more than associates who, when given a project, roll up their sleeves and get fully enmeshed in it. Passion for their work is essential because, as young litigators quickly discover, litigating is taxing and stressful. Most successful litigators are diligent, indeed dogged, in their work. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t fun to be around. Litigators often possess a combination of empathy and sarcasm. They enjoy connecting with those with whom they are working, both clients and co-counsel, sharing the joys as well as the anxieties of the litigation process. Most litigators find humor in the issues, events and personalities in even the most stressful and weighty of cases. Indeed, litigators love to tell their “war stories,” peppered with humor and pathos. As entertaining as these stories can be, they always seem to entertain most the ones who are doing the telling. HITTING A HOME RUN Many years ago, the late Irving Younger, professor of evidence at New York University School of Law and one of the country’s foremost lecturers on trial practice, summed up what makes a great litigator. Younger, an avid Yankees fan, often recounted colorful stories about the incomparable Joe DiMaggio, who made even the most spectacular play on the baseball field appear effortless. Younger’s lesson was that a trial lawyer should emulate DiMaggio in the courtroom, making it all look easy. Of course, not everyone can be as elegant in court as DiMaggio was on the ballfield, but associates who act with ease in court and in other difficult litigation situations, certainly catch the attention of the partners with whom they work. There is both good news and bad news for those litigators who have worked diligently for years and have finally succeeded in being elevated to partner. The good news is that they’ve achieved their goal, and the resulting rewards in professional stature and compensation. But the “bad” news is that they will not be able to rest on their laurels. In fact, a litigator’s initial years as a partner are normally the most intense of his or her career. Of those who have achieved much, much more is expected. Robert C. Johnson, a partner in the Chicago office of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, is chair of the firm’s litigation and business regulation practice group.

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