The successful business lawyer

By Kristi Edwards


There are far fewer ex-lawyers in plc boardrooms, acting as directors of FTSE100 companies than one would expect. They’re there advising from the outside but there a very few of them sitting as CEOs, setting strategy or creating culture, building the senior management team or fund-raising. This is because whilst lawyers are brilliant at the intellectual and analytical stuff, they’re notoriously bad (as a group we hasten to add) at the more subtle behavioural or emotional intelligence aspects that are VITAL to anticipating and meeting clients’ expectations and blending into and competing in a changing, modern business environment.

It’s a worthwhile exercise to try and get inside the head of the client. What do they want and what types of behaviour do they value? How you can anticipate and meet expectations? How you can cultivate a style that will translate better in the environment that exists outside the four walls of your firm and ensure that you are in the best position possible to build and maintain a practice in trying times?



There are of course the very obvious ones that accompany the provision of any professional service such as delivery of service in a timely manner and the ability to work to a deadline, to use clear language, free of ‘legal ease’ and to give well-defined, concise advice. But here is where it gets a little less clear and a little more difficult to anticipate – each client will likely have a layer of different and less uniform needs and expectations.  Depending on the level at which you operate, you will need to have the behavioural skills to read and anticipate these.

Consider some examples – the General Counsel who wants assistance when needed ‘at a reasonable cost’, a CEO who wants you to remove obstacles and exposed people (especially in this age of increased regulation) who want you to keep them out of jail. So, it is not difficult to see how you may need to approach every client differently and the only way you will do this effectively is by LISTENING and appreciating that most business people run a complex agenda and think that lawyers, although useful, are specialists in a narrow field. Surprise them once in a while and make every effort you can to understand their business. If you manage this then you may just have the expectations aspect covered.

One more thing on expectations – lawyers often misjudge how bottom-line oriented business people are. It seems a rather obvious point to make but be efficient and justify your costs. Business people are and a nod to the importance of such factors will help you to continue to be competitive and is the only way you will maintain relationships/survive in this ever more prudent, post-crisis environment.



So we’ve covered anticipating expectations, now for a far more subtle idea; what are the behavioural aspects that make a truly dazzling commercial lawyer? Probably the most helpful way to approach answering such a question is to consider the differences in behavioural styles between lawyers and business people.


Typical Lawyer

Typical Business Person

Has a fear of liability

“Takes a chance”

Increases complexity – i.e. a lauded lawyerly quality is the ability to spot the small issues

Reduces complexity – i.e. can only progress if the smaller issues are pushed aside

Focuses on single transactions

Works on processes and whole enterprises

Is precedent focused

Is interested in “breaking the mould”

Is reactive

Is proactive

Feels that he/she is less susceptible to business cycles (or rather… used to think this way)

Thinks in business/economic cycles

Is cynical/pessimistic because concentrates on risks

Is ‘blue sky’ because concentrated on prospects and opportunities

Is rational and values the ‘intellectual’ aspects of argument

Is much more focused on the ‘emotional’ aspects of leadership, marketing and communication

Likes to talk

Likes to take action


So, by drawing attention to the differences in approach and in fundamental thinking and identifying the main behavioural friction lines between business people and lawyers, you should be able to make some changes to the way you conduct yourself and your practice. Be aware that in order to really distinguish yourself and get noticed in what is becoming a dog eat dog battle for clients, you will need to blend your style with that of a ‘business person’; adopt some of their behaviours and tone down some typical lawyer qualities to work more effectively within the more commercial context.

Lawyers who are genuinely thought of as ‘trusted advisers’ and ‘business partners’ will hold their profession high but keep it in context. They will not be defined by being ‘a lawyer’, nor will they (if they wish to enjoy any degree of success in this market), think that they are god’s gift or a ”star” or indispensible. The days where that kind of thinking was acceptable or appropriate are long gone. We would argue that the playing field has changed irreversibly and that lawyers need to differentiate and understand expectations and ‘business behaviour’ or die. To be the kind of lawyer that a General Counsel (and remember – they stand astride the business and the profession, are increasingly powerful and under significant cost pressure), a CEO, manager, banker or trader is not only happy to instruct but whose value is recognised what will you need to do? Eliminate cynicism and pessimism, adjust the way and amount you talk, develop better listening skills to better understand expectations and attempt to understand and appreciate the value of the business opportunity!


© Edwards Gibson


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