As a lawyer, do you play to your strengths? How strong is your brand? These are two of the most important self-management questions a lawyer should ask. The answers may determine your success with your law practice.
Most lawyers know what they are not good at—rather than knowing their strengths—and focus on improving weaknesses. This will yield a low success return. Trust me: there will always be other lawyers better than you in an area where you are weak. Don’t waste too much time trying to improve a weakness—figure out, instead, how to manage around weaknesses. You have the best chance of success by focusing on your strengths.
A strength is something that you can perform close to perfect all of the time. Steve Nash, who plays in the NBA, is the all-time leader in free throw percentages, making more than 90 percent of his free throws. Nash’s near-perfect ability at free throw shooting is a strength.
Strengths result from your acquired knowledge, skill and natural talent. Knowledge and skill can be learned, but we are born with certain natural talents. You either have it or you don’t. I’m not suggesting giving up on activities that don’t play to your natural talents. I’m suggesting you figure out your natural talents (or strengths) and then focus on acquiring additional knowledge and skill to go from a first rate performance to excellence or top of the class.
So how do you determine your strengths? Ask a trusted friend or advisor who can be completely objective and specific. Or, consider a project or important task you performed and then engage in an after-action-review. Ask: What thoughts come top of mind? Was the experience positive or negative? Did I yearn to do the project? Did it come easy? Did I derive happiness or satisfaction doing it? Did I feel in control? The answers will likely inform you about your strengths and your weaknesses.
You can determine your strengths more formally by taking a free online test offered by StrengthFinders. The test results will list your top five strengths among the 34 possible strengths. By knowing your strengths, you can then focus on exploiting and them.
Next, recognize and embrace the fact you are a brand—just like Nike, Starbucks or … pick your favorite brand. You are a one-person professional services firm providing legal services—even if you practice in a large law firm. You are known by your brand and your success as a lawyer is largely determined by the strength of your brand.
Start with a brand assessment and ask yourself this question: What is it about my professional services that distinguish me from my competitors? Write out your answer right now. Don’t wait.
Does your answer grab your attention? If not, you have some brand building to do. Where to start? Start with the fundamental skills every lawyer must master because these two skills will largely define your brand. They are writing and speaking. Even if you have strong brand recognition as a lawyer, you can always improve these two critical skills. I realize the contradiction if writing and speaking are not your “strengths.” But all lawyers offering legal services must be first-rate writers and speakers to have any hope of having a strong brand.
To improve your writing skills, you need to do three things. First, read the work of other professional writers. Read the New York Times, Time, Sports Illustrated or other sources of good writing. Notice I wrote “other professional writers.” That’s because as a lawyer you are a professional writer. You are paid to write, which makes you a professional. You must constantly work on and develop this important skill just as other professional writers, athletes, musicians, artists, chefs and others constantly hone and improve the skills needed to master their craft. Second, become an aficionado (i.e., an ardent devotee) to rules of grammar and syntax. Just like you must master the rules, regulations, or statutes applicable to your given practice area, you must master the rules of writing. Third, write constantly and ask for feedback from friends or colleagues you consider good writers. Start a blog. Submit letters to the editors. Volunteer for important writing assignments. Just find ways to write and write often.
To improve your speaking skills, you need to speak. Speaking is like batting practice to prepare you for the time you will be center stage giving an important presentation, which may define your brand as a lawyer. You can’t go months without getting on your feet and speaking (i.e., taking some batting practice) and believe you can nail an important presentation. If you have little opportunity to speak, join Toastmasters, sign up to teach a course, or sign up to speak at seminars. Then go in fully prepared. Don’t wing it. Speakers who deliver a TED Talk often practice their 18-minute talk as many as 40 times before the final performance.
Knowing your strengths and finding ways to exploit those strengths and taking steps to build your brand are two important self-management steps that will help you to experience greater success in your practice of law.
Dave Dolkas is a partner at McDermott Will & Emery LLP and specializes in IP litigation. He is also the author of Managing Complex IP Litigation (LexisNexis).