A Supreme Court Judge, former Simpson Grierson partner Justice Susan Glazebrook joined the High Court bench in June 2000, serving as a temporary judge until her permanent appointment in December that same year. She was appointed to the Court of Appeal in May 2002 and to the Supreme Court in August 2012.
It is tempting to start with what may seem an obvious requirement: good lawyers must know the law. But of course that is impossible. The law, particularly if not confined to New Zealand, is vast. Indeed, lawyers who think they know the law can be the most dangerous.
Humility is a virtue. This means that good lawyers never assume. They will be familiar with legal principles and method and know how to research the law and will always check that they have it right. They will also always remember their overriding duty to the law and take care not to succumb to commercial pressures that could compromise that duty.
Good lawyers will have a love of the law. They will strive to keep up to date with legal developments and take advantage of as many formal and informal educational opportunities as they can. If they work in a specialist area, they will ensure they do not become trapped in a narrow and comfortable alternate legal bubble. Sooner or later that bubble will rub against other areas of the law and specialists need to be prepared. An understanding of the general legal environment may even enrich the specialist area.
The next quality required is curiosity. Good lawyers will be curious about the motivations behind a transaction. They will want to understand how their clients’ businesses work. They will be interested in their clients as people but without being intrusive. The more they understand about their clients and the general environment in which they live and work, the more likely it is that they will meet their clients’ needs. This means that good lawyers should have lives outside of work and the law. Their clients do.
Good lawyers will be creative in tailoring solutions to fit with clients’ motivations and means, without sacrificing quality and without sacrificing their ethical duties. They will have the ability to get to the nub of a problem and isolate the issues. Good lawyers can communicate effectively. They realise that not everyone understands ‘lawyer’ or wants to hear it even if they do.
But good lawyers are also meticulous (or employ those who are). Checking documentation, checking sources and considering all eventualities may even be more important than brilliance. Cultivate those skills. Despite best efforts, however, mistakes occur. Good lawyers know how to minimise these and find the best way of fixing them, to the extent possible. Covering up mistakes that cannot be fixed is not a solution. Time usually makes things worse.
Good lawyers will remember that they are part of the community. They should use their skills to be of service to that community. Good lawyers will also remember that the community they serve is diverse and so are their clients. They will encourage diversity and respect for differences in both their private and professional lives. They will recognise that surrounding themselves by those similar to themselves deprives them and their practice of new ideas and balance.
Good lawyers are aware that they work in a profession that is still not reflective of the society in which it operates. They are aware of potential overt and subconscious bias in terms of gender, ethnicity and other cultural differences and they will seek to address them. This may be through education, mentoring, pro bono work, or something else altogether. What matters is a willingness to promote a culture of inclusion and a legal profession that reflects the society that surrounds and shapes the law. Good lawyers will develop criteria for assessing the performance of all employees and fellow workers that recognise and respect differences and they will nourish and develop the skills of all.
A few years ago, there was a lament that many lawyers had lost sight of the idea of law as a profession and that they were instead treating law as a business. I think this misguided. Good lawyers take the best from both. They reject the feeling of entitlement that can come from seeing oneself as part of a profession. Equally, they reject the pure profit focus that for some epitomises business. Instead they embrace efficiency, value for money, responsiveness, client focus, public service, inclusiveness and integrity. All of these make good business sense, as well as showcasing the best ideals and aspirations of the profession.