10 Critical Features – Are you a Real Lawyer, or a Pretender?


There are a lot of people who have done a law degree. There are also a lot of people who have been admitted to practice law. Finally, there are many people who populate buildings, sit at desks, work with clients, and call themselves attorneys or lawyers.

But that’s not all there is to it.

You see, unlike “the dream”, not all lawyers are created equal.  We all look similar, but scratch below the surface and you quickly reveal the discrepancies.

Some surpass expectations.  Some rise, and some fall.  Some are popular, others less so.

To help guide you through whether you’re a real lawyer or just playing at law, I decided to set out 10 distinguishing features of lawyers who, in my view, are doing the title justice.

See how you go.

1. Real Lawyers Have Integrity

I’ve put this front and centre because it’s so obvious, and yet so infrequently focused upon.  There’s no university subject called “Integrity” (at least, not in a law degree) – sure, there’s legal ethics but that’s a different thing.

Do you have integrity?  Do you take responsibility for your actions.  Are you confident to take a stand on “white lies” (here’s one – “I’m just working on the draft now” – here’s another “tell her I’m in a meeting”).

If you don’t start with integrity, then all the rest really doesn’t matter.  Without it, you’re not a real lawyer.

2. Real Lawyers Know where to Draw the Line

It’s easy to get bogged down in minutiae, especially on a legal question.

But sometimes we take the positive characteristic of attention to detail, and turn it into obsessive.

The problem with obsessive is that it’s expensive, time consuming, and normally not beneficial to the client.

Part of excelling at legal practice is to understand when you have hit “enough”.  It’s not a quality question – your output should always be top quality.  It’s more a value question – when have you diligently done what needed doing in the best interests of your client.

3. Real Lawyers Know how to Serve Client and Firm

There’s a natural tension in legal practice.  One the one hand, we want to make money.  On the other, our ethical foundation (and usually our natural inclination) is to serve our clients.

A real lawyer can balance the two, so that their business doesn’t flounder, and they also serve their clients to the best of their ability.  Most often these interests need not compete, provided the practitioner has control of the situation from the outset in a wise and considered process.

4. A Real Lawyer is Introspective

Know thyself.

So often we are keen to point out the characteristics of others, whether positive or negative.  It’s far less common that we are honest with ourselves.

Taking a good look in the mirror will provide you with a rock solid foundation for your legal career.

A real lawyer knows:

  • what they are good at;
  • what they aren’t;
  • what they want now;
  • what they want in the future;
  • critically – WHY all of those things are true.

In reality it’s the last that provides the value of introspection.  Knowing why is essential for any lawyer.

Interlude – Try the Slideshare Version if you Like Pretty Pictures

5. Lawyers Consume Information

We read, discuss, listen.

But do we take it all in?  Have you ever been in a client interview where you blank out for a minute and then realise you just missed something important?  It’s embarrasing and rightly so.

A significant part of our job is to take on board important information, to filter it with our legal skill and knowledge, and to then re-assemble the relevant information into a meaningful format to achieve its purpose.

But step 1 of that process is this: consume the information.

The means we need to know how to read quickly and comprehensively.   We need to understand body language, tone and story telling.  We need to be able to identify things that are unspoken as well as what is not said.

It’s a difficult legal skill to master, but a critical one.

6. Real Lawyers are Expert Communicators

Everything you know is useless until you can articulate it to another person.

Ever spoken to a surgeon?  How did they go treading that line between incomprehensible and patronising?  Likewise with lawyers it’s a difficult tightrope.  Our clients vary in their sophistication, and so much we in our methods.  Hiding behind long letters does not help, because our clients will simply call us for an explanation.

So the talent of a real lawyer is not just to articulate information to another person, but have them understand it, take it on board, agree with it, and act upon it.

Once you master communication skills – legal practice becomes an ocean of opportunity.

7. Real Lawyers are Constant Learners

No matter what area you work in, chances are high that the law you learned in law school is different to the law in that area now.

Next year it will change again, and then again after that.

There is no way you will ever keep up unless you develop a habit of constant learning.  And as much as this site is about the acquisition of legal skills to complement your legal knowledge, the importance of having an accurate and comprehensive understanding of the law cannot be understated.

Keep up, or you’ll get left behind and then sued for negligence.

8. Real Lawyers Want the Ball

There are some people who seem to have done law degrees expressly so that they can avoid taking responsibility for anything.

Normally this stems from fear of not succeeding.  So rather than fail, we just don’t try.

What a waste of life.

Opportunities are given to those who turn up.  If you want a file, then get it.  If you want to pursue a client – then do it.  Don’t get yourself fired, but don’t sit there shivering in your office waiting for something to happen – because it never, ever will. So turn up to the game, put your jersey on, and get on the field.  Real lawyers want the ball.

9. Real Lawyers are Generous

Most of us didn’t get into this game for ourselves.

The beauty of that decision is that the law presents an abundance of opportunity to be generous with:

Generosity is also a way of increasing productivity, if you do it right.

10. Real lawyers are Authentic

Don’t like sport?  Then why pretend to enjoy the football game with clients?

Don’t drink beer?  Then don’t arrange a beer tasting that you plan on going to.

If you’re quiet, then be quiet.  If you’re confident, then be confident.  If you’re obnoxious, then shut up and go away.

Although many traits, taken to extreme, can be a problem – most lawyers I have met are pretty decent, pleasant people.

Where we get into trouble is when we do this in our heads: “Person X is successful, and they behave like this.  I want to be as successful as person X and therefore I will behave like that as well”.

Guess what – person X is person X – you are not.

Unless you are at the far end of horrible, there are people who will respond to the authentic you.  Pushing yourself into somebody else’s mold will do you no favours in any dimension.  You’ll dislike the process, your interactions will feel icky (that’s the technical term) and people won’t respond to you, because people can spot a fake a mile away.

What’s your Score?

Do you tick these elements?  Are you a real lawyer?  Let me know how you went in the comments.

Assuming you’re a real lawyer – Happy Lawyering!

  • Hi Chris, great content as always.

    This list also works for any professional serving clients.

    It’s not fair to single out the best of this list, but 7 (constant learners) and 9 especially (generous) resonate personally.


  • Thank you for sharing the article, very refreshing to read! Absolutely agree with the points made, these are the traits of a lawyer, most of which I hope that I have cultivated within me , if not, I naturally posses, such as being honest and responsible as well as knowing ‘they self’. Unfortunately though, the law is being used as a tool by the most crooked in order to achieve crooked ends, they were able to do so by simply adopting the legal skills…. But as you said in your article those so called ‘lawyers’ can hopefully be spotted a mile away!

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