Play to Your Strengths, Improve Your Weaknesses
I don’t want anyone to misconstrue this as encouraging you to sit back on your laurels for those things you consider strengths. To the contrary, you need to continue to hone those skills to best employ them to your clients’ advantage. On the flip side, you can’t just resign yourself to being bad at some aspects of practicing and write them off as losses.
Two Components of Civil Litigation
You can break litigation practice down into two components: written and oral. It’s been my experience that most lawyers are good at one or the other. Those who excel at both writing and speaking are unicorns. I only need one hand to count the lawyers I know who are good speaker and writers – and I secretly hate them. The rest of us have to analyze our our strengths and put them to work for us.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, I hope you’ll assume that I’m a more compelling writer than speaker. For me that means every time I’m putting something in writing to the court, I want it to be completely dialed in (except for that time I failed to proofread). Because whatever I am submitting to the court is going to be more effectively communicated on paper than in oral arguments.
Playing to My Strengths
I recently argued a motion to enforce a settlement agreement. First, I filed a motion, of course, then the court set the matter for hearing. The day of the hearing arrived without the plaintiff having ever filed a written response. So I prepared my arguments and worked through all the counter-arguments I expected the plaintiff to make. At the hearing, I was up first. I concisely made my points and sat down. The plaintiff meandered through his points, read some case law (as in actually read large chunks of text even though he hadn’t provided copies to the court to help it follow along), and verbally recited to the court his case sites, which he had to repeat several times. He made all the arguments I expected of him and had prepared for, but I still didn’t feel good about my rebuttal argument, which I could have boiled down to – “What he’s arguing doesn’t apply. I’m right and he’s wrong. And if you want to be right too, you’ll rule in my favor.” But of course I didn’t say that. Then I fretted over it until the court ruled in my favor the next day.
I have no doubt that I won that motion (not just because the law and facts were on my side, since that doesn’t always ensure victory) because of my written motion. It helped too that the plaintiff, despite being much more at ease and having the potential to be a more effective speaker, fouled up his end of things. That always helps.
Improving my Weaknesses
Knowing that I’m a better writer than speaker doesn’t let me off the hook. I am actively working to improve my speaking. I seek out and have even created opportunities to speak in front of people. And it’s uncomfortable (maybe even for the audience too) but essential. There are times I know when I’ve connected with my audience, and other times when everything just falls flat. In trial a couple of weeks ago, I delivered the opening statement. My little joke during the introduction evoked not even a courtesy chuckle. The jurors may as well all have been wearing Guy Fawkes masks for all the expression they showed throughout the short presentation of the case. It was not reassuring. But then they responded the same way to every other lawyer for the duration of the case. And that was a little more reassuring.
As you’re reading this, you are likely doing some self-analysis and identifying whether you are more naturally a speaker or writer (or a unicorn). For those who don’t feel that you’re not inherently good writers, know this – most everybody writes crappy first drafts. Anyone who doesn’t write regularly isn’t going to be good at it. Improved writing requires intentionality. And reading, lots of reading.
Don’t just allow others to take the lead on components of your practice that make you uncomfortable. There’s no better way to promote growth than to put yourself in the precarious position of possibly failing. Similarly, the component you consider a strength needs continual attention too, or else it will stagnate and begin to lag.