Archive for November, 2013

How to be a good lawyer: Keith Lee’s “The Marble and the Sculptor”

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

The Marble and the Sculptor

Keith Lee

American Bar Association, November 2013, 180 pages, $24.95

 

I don’t like self-help books. They usually contain a single insight, repeated fifteen different ways, and padded out with anecdotes to fill a couple hundred pages. What might have made an excellent magazine article or blog post becomes a dreary monotone of “omg-check-this-out-guys!” hype.

I don’t like books on the practice of law. When they aren’t just plain foolish, written by marketing types who don’t get the concept of a learned profession, they’re banal. And I’m leery of anything written specifically for the “you are special” audience. They tend to skimp on hard truths and practical wisdom.

Keith Lee has written a self-help book for the “you are special” audience, on the practice of law. And I love it.

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Lee’s book is a primer for those just starting out in the profession. And it’s full of sound advice.

Taking his title from a quote by Nobel Prize winner Alexis Carrel — “Man cannot remake himself without suffering, for he is both the marble and the sculptor” — Lee wastes no time in making his point that becoming a good lawyer takes daily diligence, hard work, and a certain amount of self-sacrifice. Being a lawyer isn’t some job you go to, so you can live your real life after hours and on the weekends. Being a lawyer is your life. A certain amount of transformation is going to be necessary.

Fortunately, Lee has sound guidance on just what kind of transformation is necessary. Showing wisdom beyond his years, he lays out precisely the skills, habits and ways of thinking that lawyers need to have.

There is little fluff here. The chapters are short and sweet. He doesn’t repeat himself, but makes his point and moves on. He actually has a lot to say, and he seems impatient to get on to the next bit. This is a good thing.

Of course, you can’t have everything. His focus on concision means less introspection and analysis. He focuses more on the “what” than the “why,” so sometimes his assertions seem a bit conclusory, and at times I felt like I was left hanging. (In one example, for instance, he warns that the commoditization of legal services can become “overwhelming and dangerous” and then moves on, without describing those dangers. It wouldn’t hurt to include a paragraph or two explaining something like high volume efficiencies may work for routine, nonvarying services, but the second someone has a unique situation requiring creativity or thought, you’re setting yourself up for disaster — either you can’t spend the time and resources to give that client the individualized services he requires, or you do but at the expense of your other clients. Maybe in the next edition.)

But this is more than made up for by the good, sound advice that fills page after page of the book. Frankly, there are tons of books out there exploring all the reasoning behind each of his nuggets of wisdom. If you want deeper analysis, you can find it. But if you want a simple, straightforward “what do I need to know? what do I need to do?” then you can’t beat this book right here.

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As I said, the book’s chapters are short and sweet. Rarely more than a couple of pages each. They are organized into four neat sections: Law School, Fundamental Skills, Clients & Client Service, and Professional Development.

The section on law school leads off with a chapter provocatively titled “Do Not Go to Law School.” But don’t let that fool you. Lee is someone who clearly loves the law, and for all the right reasons. He wants you to go to law school, just not for the wrong reasons. The other chapters in that section are full of advice, not so much for doing well in school, but for taking advantage of those years to prepare for a rewarding career afterwards. A major theme in this section is that you probably aren’t as awesome as you think you are, because you’re too ignorant to even realize what you don’t know… so put in the effort.

The section on fundamental skills is meant to set out the rudiments of legal practice, the basic skills every lawyer must have just to do the job (and which must continue to be practiced and improved throughout one’s career). Here, Lee focuses on writing well, speaking well, and dressing well. Although I agree with all three, I probably would have chosen a more comprehensive set of necessary rudiments — Knowledge of the law itself in one’s field, the ability to do thorough research and meaningful analysis, clarity of thought, and the ability to communicate and persuade in writing and orally. These skills underlie everything lawyers do, from drafting a will to negotiating a deal to arguing in court.  I’d be the last to argue that dressing well is not important, but it is not a fundamental skill required for the practice of law. Oddly enough, I’d have preferred this section to be less detailed and more conclusory — the bits on rhetorical devices and the such are necessarily incomplete given the nature of the book, and a more simple “here’s what you need to learn, now go learn this stuff somewhere else” might have sufficed.

The section on clients and client service should be required reading for every new lawyer before being sworn in. The first chapter says it all: “The Privilege of Being a Servant.” We are here to serve our clients, first and foremost. If anything is sacred in this world, it is our duty to those who have put their lives and livelihoods in our hands. And we are honored to be given that duty. But Lee doesn’t just mouth this lofty ideal; he gets into the practicality of actually carrying it out. How the heck do you serve that client? For that matter, how do you get that client in the first place? He does so without trivializing the relationship, or turning it into a salesman’s mantra of leads and conversions. Recognizing the wisdom of others, Lee makes sure to share insights gleaned from others in the profession. (As he says elsewhere, watch others to see what works, and make it yours. He does a fine job of it here.)

The final section actually takes up the entire second half of the book, and shifts away from clients and the profession to talk about you. Your own personal fulfillment. How to succeed as a lawyer. But it’s anything but touchy-feely. The advice here is really about how to be good at what you do. What disciplines, habits, and choices are going to make you awesome — and by extension, make your life as a lawyer awesome? The chapter titles are brilliant (“To Sharpen is to Destroy,” “Personal Branding is Stupid,” “5 Basic Mistakes to Avoid in Your First Job,” etc.) and just reading the table of contents feels inspiring. The thoughts he shares follow through on that promise. Ending with “There Has Never Been a Better Time to Be a Lawyer” and the most essential truth of all “Chance Favors the Prepared,” the reader has to feel ready to run out there and be that great lawyer right away.

So get the book. Read it. Take those nuggets of wisdom and make them your own. Then go out there and be that great lawyer.