Top 10 habits of a leading litigator

Atrisha Lewis

There is a small group of litigators at the forefront of the most exciting and challenging cases. If you want to litigate high-profile or high-stakes cases, you need the skills and the profile to match.

But how do lawyers become “leading” lawyers? If you are in your early to mid-years of practice, what should you be doing now to build your skills and profile to be a leading litigator? To answer these questions, I interviewed litigation powerhouses about their strategies for building their profile and their skills, including the steps they took earlier on in their careers. (Thank you, Sarit Batner, Sandra Forbes, Peter Griffin, Geoff Hall, Linda Rothstein, Paul Steep and Benjamin Zarnett for being gracious interviewees.) While many of the leading litigators did not, and do not, have a conscious strategy, they all have habits in common.

Here are the top 10 habits I gleaned from leading litigators:

1.    Do not say “no”: This is at the top of the list because, almost universally, the leading litigators I interviewed told me that they do not say “no” to an opportunity. Leading lawyers accepted trials and cases that their peers declined because, often, saying “yes” comes at a personal expense (long hours and juggling multiple priorities). A pattern of saying “yes” is important because it often leads to an avalanche of other opportunities. Clients and referring lawyers know they can always turn to you and you will always step in to help.  

2.    Be in court often: Leading litigators are in court. They are often there just watching other lawyers so they can learn from observation. It is also a good marketing technique. The more often you are seen in court, the more people associate you with being a “courtroom litigator.” Geoff Hall, partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP and a commercial list regular, described making an effort to personally attend Commercial List Chambers appointments because of the importance of connecting with, and learning from, other Commercial List lawyers and judges.  
3.    Take risks (even if that is uncomfortable): Leading litigators are willing to take risks. Examples of big risks leading litigators take include focusing on getting lead counsel opportunities at an early stage (see my previous article on how to transition to lead counsel. One litigator described the risk of stepping out of the shadow of a senior mentor and steady source of work in order to make a name for himself alone. Linda Rothstein, partner at Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein, described the risk associated with leaving an established, well-known practice to start a boutique law firm with colleagues. Peter Griffin, managing partner and one of the founding partners at Lenczner Slaght Royce Smith Griffin LLP, described the calculated risks he and other leading litigators take on their files (which has the corollary benefit of pushing matters to trial).  

4.    Build relationships within the litigation bar: Leading litigators build and maintain relationships within the litigation bar and other lawyers who will refer them work. They make a concerted effort to stay in touch with classmates from law school or their articling class. Ben Zarnett, partner at Goodmans LLP, stayed in touch with peers not by attending cocktail parties but by making a concerted effort to talk to them about his and their cases (both to seek and to provide advice about case strategy). Three leading litigators recommended being involved in advocacy organizations such as The Advocates’ Society or the Ontario Bar Association as a way to be meaningfully known within the bar. Notably, the leading litigators I interviewed focused more on building and fostering relationships with litigation colleagues and referral sources rather than clients.

5.    Be civil: Leading lawyers are civil to their opposing counsel. Not only is civility part of our professional responsibility, you never know where your next referral is coming from. Leading litigators opt to take opposing counsel on contentious matters for coffee rather than succumb to the temptation of writing a nasty reply email. Leading litigators often mentioned that some of their most exciting cases came from conflict referrals from a former opposing counsel.

6.    Never do anything half-assed: Leading lawyers do not just join a group, they jump in and contribute. They leave an impression by working hard and being engaged in the professional activities in which they participate.

7.    Project confidence at all times: Leading litigators project confidence from the initial client meeting and continue to do so even after a devastating loss. Leading litigators ensure their clients see the spin they will present at trial to earn clients’ trust.

8.    Work up your cases thoroughly: Leading litigators develop their confidence (and their skills) by working up all of their cases. They invest time understanding the facts and the law. Leading litigators are not overwhelmed by cost-benefit analysis; they focus on doing a good job for their clients every time. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for putting time into each case.

9.    Practise, practise, practise: Leading litigators practise their craft. They universally jump at all trial opportunities. They recommend signing up for every skills-building workshop in the era of the vanishing trial. They practise their advocacy skills in everyday interactions. One leading litigator told me she approaches every professional interaction through an advocacy mindset and structures her communication so that it immediately addresses the issue, the answer and the analysis.

10.    Be happy, enjoy what you do and stick with it: Leading litigators were universally passionate about their work. Putting in the hours of work required to be a leading litigator can only be done if you love the job. Griffin adds humour (where appropriate) to ensure that the job stays fun.

Atrisha Lewis is a litigation associate at McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Toronto.  Passionate about advocacy, Atrisha has a broad litigation practice where she works on commercial, professional negligence, and intellectual property matters. She can reached at [email protected] and Twitter: @atrishalewis

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