Professional Development: That's Why they Call it Practicing Law

Law school teaches us how to research, argue, and advocate. But law school doesn’t focus on the “soft skills” necessary for building and maintaining a successful practice. 

By: Lisa Buck

34669675 During his 30-year career representing workers compensation clients, attorney
 David Kempston collected observations and wisdom from colleagues and mentors. The result is his book, That’s Why They Call It Practicing Law, which emphasizes the application of customer service principles to the legal practice. Some of these practical tips are reflected in the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC), but all of them can improve your practice.

Focus on the Relationship
The client, not the attorney, is the focus of the relationship. If we keep this is mind, it will influence how we treat the client. Kempston views himself as a glorified tour guide, helping the client navigate a complicated legal system and telling their story. If we keep the client as the focus, our level of service will be elevated. 

Tip: Come out to greet the client when they arrive and walk them back to your office, rather than asking a staff member to do it. 

Set Expectations 
Unmet expectations can lead to disappointment and conflict. Establish proper and realistic expectations with the client early on. For example, at the initial consultation, define the scope of representation. 

Tip: Set communication expectations such as “I will always call or email you back within 24 hours.”


Listening is a crucial skill that requires focus and intent. When speaking with a client, really listen to what they are saying and for what they may be feeling. Show empathy and acknowledge the client’s fears. A simple “I know this is a difficult time for you” can help alleviate their stress and show that you understand.

Tip: Conclude the conversation by asking “Is there anything else?” or “Do you have any other questions?" The client will feel heard.

Be Mindful 
Mindfulness is defined as pure focus and total engagement in the current activity. It’s difficult to avoid distraction and filter out the “noise” in life.  Remember, the most important person is the one you are currently with. 

Tip: When you are on the phone, listen to the person exclusively, as opposed to also going through your email, shuffling through papers, or googling something on your phone.

Communicate Clearly 
It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.  Speak and write with clarity and brevity. Quality is more important than quantity. Too much information or complex, flowery language can cause confusion.  Seek to inform, not overwhelm. 

Tip: If you receive an inflammatory email or voicemail from a client, respond to the content, not to the tone. 

Don’t Procrastinate 
Lawyers have a duty to act with reasonable promptness. [MRPC 1.3.]  According to the Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, procrastination is one of the most common ethics complaints. Keeping up is easier than catching up.

Tip: In looking over your weekly or daily schedule, carve out a specific day or time in which you focus on a certain task, e.g., answer phone calls during the lunch hour or check email at set times. Consistency is the key to productivity. 

Be Prepared 
Kempston views this as the most important rule. While you can’t control the facts of the case or the governing law, you can control how prepared you are.  According to Kempston, being a prepared litigator means you know the facts, know the elements of the claim you need to prove, and know how you’re going to do that. In addition, know the judge and opposing counsel and their tendencies. 

Maintain Perspective 
We all face stressful circumstances, and it is hard not to overreact when panic or fear set in. When faced with stress, Kempston suggests following these three steps: pause, breathe, and choose (your next step).

Tip: If your client is stressed, it may help to give them a list of concrete steps they can take to advance the case.

Sharpen the Saw
“Sharpen the saw” means preserving and enhancing your greatest asset: you. Periodically evaluate what you do, how you do it, and why you do it.  This process will improve your practice. Actively pursuing a hobby or interest outside of law can help us stay balanced and fulfilled. Kempston points out that Winston Churchill painted and wrote. From walking to reading to traveling, hobbies help us stay balanced and fulfilled. 

Our career choice is not called “perfecting law”; it’s called “practicing law.”  Providing excellent legal service requires consistent and intentional practice. Practicing the soft skills mentioned above will enhance your client-attorney relationships, and perhaps your life outside of the office as well.

Lisa-Buck-150By Lisa Buck 
Ms. Buck practiced corporate law in Minneapolis and was an adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law. When she isn’t writing for the Hennepin Lawyer, you can find her behind the lens at Lisa Buck Photography.
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