I have observed over the years that it is an interesting aspect of human nature (or at least the nature of lawyers) that people tend to value most what they themselves do well.
Those who are knowledgeable in the law cannot conceive that you can be a good lawyer unless you have an encyclopedic knowledge of the law. Those who are highly skilled at drafting documents honestly believe that any lawyer who cannot create a great document is a second-rate lawyer. Those who can attract clients tend to think that you are nothing if you are not a rainmaker. And those who can see the forest for the trees and think strategically are certain that these abilities constitute the essence of what it means to be an excellent lawyer, even if they are a disaster when called upon to draft or review a legal document, to manage a transaction or to initiate a lawsuit.
Since lawyers value their own skills most highly, they tend to want to hire lawyers who are just like them. Rainmakers hire lawyers who are personable and who show the potential for bringing in business, and technical experts hire other technical experts. Strangely enough, sometimes this results in a firm not having enough of one or the other skill set.
The fact that lawyers often value their owns skills greater than they value the skills of other lawyers is also evident when it comes to compensation. Every law firm partner who has developed a great client base knows in his or her heart that the business generators should be compensated better than the technical experts because without the business generators there would be no work for the technical experts to do. And every law firm partner who is a technical expert passionately believes that the technical experts should be compensated better than the business generators, because without the technical experts the work could never get done. Both types have ruined practically every compensation committee meeting that has ever taken place as well as a fair number of partners meetings.
There was one excellent technically oriented lawyer who I knew who attached zero importance to the contribution of his partners in managing the firm. He was famously quoted as saying that just because some of his partners devoted many hours to firm management did not mean that they should be compensated at the same level as lawyers like him who produced significant billings. He gave the analogy that garbage collectors work hard but are not compensated on the same level as lawyers. That was quite the partners meeting.
I also came across a partner in a law firm who attached tremendous value to his own rainmaking skills and was critical of those who hired technically competent lawyers who could not generate significant new clients. At one point he said that he would be happy to hire lawyers whose practice skills were second rate if they could generate enough business, and he then proceeded to do so with disastrous results.
These tendencies have important implications for the harmonious operation and even the stability of law firms. Of more immediate interest, at least for me, is their implications for clients. From that perspective, I have concluded that the best lawyer is one who knows, and more importantly admits, his or her strengths and weaknesses and invites the participation of whoever is required to do a great job for the client. If I were a client, I would be wary of lawyers who think that they can handle it all by themselves.
In case one mistakenly thinks that this means that dealing with large firms is better than dealing with small firms or sole practitioners, it does not. There are lawyers in large firms who despite having all the resources of the firm available to them, still try to do everything themselves because they are the only person who they value, and there are small firm lawyers and sole practitioners who know when to bring in resources from outside the firm.
Bottom Line: It is about the client, not the lawyer, and in today’s complex world that often means assembling a team to achieve the client’s objectives. Whenever a lawyer’s ego gets in the way, the client suffers. While no client will be well served by a lawyer who does not have a healthy dose of self-confidence, clients should always seek out a lawyer whose ego is in check.