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Litigation: The 5 traits of highly effective trial lawyers

Experience and specialization aren’t always the most important qualities for a successful lawyer

Surprisingly few clients have the training to evaluate a lawyer’s performance, whether it’s related to a transaction, document or trial. So when you ask most corporate counsel how they go about selecting the right trial lawyer for a specific matter, you’ll probably hear terms such as “specialist,” “experienced” and “niche.” These are perfectly acceptable answers. Deep experience with specific industries, products and even courtrooms, “knowing the ropes,” has always been considered the litigation gold standard.

But if you ask the same clients, immediately after a significant positive outcome, what made the trial lawyer effective and successful, you’ll hear a different story. They’ll likely tell you that it wasn’t as much about background as backbone. After years in the courtroom, I’ve made a science of identifying the key traits of the most effective trial lawyers. Some I’ve argued with, some against. Although they all differ in age, gender, education and personality, there are some common characteristics. My four-plus decades of front-line observation have taught me that the most effective trial lawyers—the kind who thrive in any courtroom, with any client, in any matter—share these five key traits. 

4. Curiosity. The benefit of deep specialization in a narrow field of law or business often comes at the expense of broader perspective. Psychologists call it the curse of knowledge.  I’ve found that the most effective litigators resist the narrow confines of deep specialties and maintain a relentless curiosity about the world they live in. They possess an insatiable curiosity beyond law for a variety of topics and life experiences in science, art, psychology, physics and even pop culture. They have obscure hobbies and eclectic tastes. They know that solutions to courtroom challenges often come from the most unlikely places.  

Juries and judges are rarely expert specialists. They are, by design, non-expert  representatives of society at large. In general, courtroom communications are most effective if they’re on a fifth-grade level.  This can often frustrate specialists who struggle to relate their language and thinking to lay audiences. Relentless curiosity not only leads to innovative approaches and solutions, but also keeps the job of litigation continually fresh and exciting. 

Contributing Author

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Howard Scher

Howard Scher is co-managing shareholder of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney's Philadelphia office and is a former member of the firm's Board of Directors. With experience acquired in...

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