What Makes a Good Lawyer?

“It is a pleasant world we live in, sir, a very pleasant world. There are bad people in it, Mr. Richard, but if there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.”

– Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop(3)

While writers like Dickens have long maligned lawyers, the truth is that good lawyers have played a critical role in society and in the lives and businesses of the clients they serve. Yet, the question of what lawyers need to be successful—to be good—is layered in opaque complexity. Elusive though an answer to the question might seem, its pursuit is critical. It can unlock the potential to educate lawyers who are ready to begin their careers, join the profession, serve their clients, enrich their communities, and contribute to society.

Through the Foundations for Practice study, we set out to answer this question. Many before us have posited answers and we stand on their shoulders. Paul D. Cravath, of Cravath, Swain & Moore, a New York City law firm that has become synonymous with prestige and privilege, said that lawyers required traits like character, industry, intellectual thoroughness, efficiency, honesty, loyalty, and judgment.(4) More recently, small-firm lawyer Keith Lee has said that being a good new lawyer requires a “beginner’s mind,” referring to “an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject,” and that “the universal overriding trait among exceptional lawyers is a dedication to systematic, continuous improvement.”(5) Law professor and legal market expert William D. Henderson said that “highly effective lawyers draw upon a diverse array of skills and abilities that are seldom taught, measured, or discussed during law school.”(6)

In short, we agree. Our study has confirmed the import of all of these traits and characteristics—and many more. In fact, while a study of this magnitude yields a similar magnitude of theories and paths to investigate, we have been, by far, most struck by what our study says about the importance and urgency of characteristics and, to a lesser extent, professional competencies—particularly when compared with legal skills.

The lawyers we surveyed—numbering more than 24,000—were clear that characteristics (such as integrity and trustworthiness, conscientiousness, and common sense), as well as professional competencies (such as listening attentively, speaking and writing, and arriving on time), were far more important in brand new lawyers than legal skills (such as use of dispute resolution techniques to prevent or handle conflicts, drafting policies, preparing a case for trial, and conducting and defending depositions).

The implications of this pose many opportunities for law schools, legal employers, law students, and new lawyers, which we discuss here.


3.  Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop (1941).

4.  Robert T. Swaine, The Cravath Firm and Its Predecessors, 1819-1947, Volume 1: The Predecessor Firms, 1819-1906 266 (1946).

5.  Keith Robert Lee, The Marble and the Sculptor xii (2013).

6.  William D. Henderson, Successful Lawyer Skills and Behaviors, in Essential Qualities of the Professional Lawyer 60 (Paul A. Haskins, ed., 2013).