Good Lawyers

by F.

How much difference is there between a “good” lawyer and an “average” lawyer, once you control for specialty and years of practice? I don’t think there’s much, if any, real difference. It’s funny to hear people talk about how this lawyer is “really bad” and that other lawyer is “really good” when, in fact, we’re all pretty much about the same (again: given the same experience level and domain knowledge–a patent lawyer is not a substitute for a family law litigator). So, much of the differentiation is just marketing. Just bullshit.

One of the funniest things I remember was hearing an in-house lawyer at Microsoft bitch about a partner at a big law firm we used. “Oh, she’s terrible,” he would say. “Just terrible!” Of course, most people thought that outside lawyer was excellent and that the inside lawyer was the terrible one. Oh well.

I never used to understand this. I thought there was some magical property that the successful lawyers had that the less-successful ones didn’t. First I thought it might be intelligence. But almost all lawyers are highly intelligent. I mean, you can’t even get into a top 20 law school without an IQ in something like the top 2%. So that’s not it. And then I wondered whether it was something else, like “legal ability” or something. I don’t see it.

I’ve concluded that lawyerly success is a product of hard work, time, and luck. Like everything else in this world. None of these things is sufficient, yet none is necessary either. There is no “good lawyer” gene or special brain region.

It’s odd, though, being in the profession and laboring under this illusion, wondering how you can get an advantage over your competitors. It’s a little like putting a bunch of smart adults into a room and giving them a test of single-digit multiplication. Everyone is going to get every problem right. There’s really no way to compete. We’re all right at the median, and if we want to distinguish ourselves, we have to make up reasons why someone is better than another–penmanship, maybe.

Sometimes we want to see bell-curves when they don’t exist–or the curve has to be put under a magnifying class in order to see that familiar bell shape. What’s the point? Sometimes differences really are insignificant.