Professor Cheer is Dean of the School of Law, Canterbury University. Professor Cheer was awarded a PhD for her thesis entitled: 'Reality and Myth: The New Zealand Media and the Chilling Effect of Defamation Law'.
It has been a useful exercise to think about the characteristics of a good lawyer and, in particular, what responsibility law schools have in this process.
Previously I might have suggested Atticus Finch, the iconic small town American lawyer who is the linchpin of Harper Lee’s celebrated book To Kill a Mockingbird, as the best example of a good lawyer. But having recently read the controversial sequel Go Set a Watchman, in which Lee destroyed Atticus’s sheen by showing him to be a racist, this path is no longer open to me. And in any event, Atticus practised when law was still a sort of gentleman’s profession, instead of the somewhat exacting business it is today.
So I have focused on what it takes to be a lawyer in contemporary New Zealand, using my experience in practice, in government and now as a Dean of a respected law school. At Canterbury, we are in fact currently carrying out a longitudinal study looking at what it takes to make a good lawyer, by following the experience of a cohort of 2014 students from Canterbury, Auckland and Waikato law schools during their study and then out into the workforce. The study will also take in the experience and views of potential employers, and will help us determine how the sort of graduate we produce has the potential to become a good lawyer, and whether and how successfully legal employers can augment that process. The study has already produced rich data, and if any readers are interested, they can get in touch with me for more detail.
In my view, then, a good lawyer should have at the very least a solid or good law degree in order to have basic legal knowledge and some skills with which to begin. A good law degree will give the law graduate the ability to write, to communicate well orally and to use technological and other resources to be an effective researcher. Additionally it should provide social skills, some ability to develop and present the different sides of an argument, and the means to recognise when to negotiate and when to take a firm position. Furthermore, such graduates should have some powers of reflection, as well as reasonable confidence.
The good lawyer grows from this beginning by adding work and life experience, and developing specific expertise. The good lawyer cares about and respects the law, has a well-developed sense of justice and ethics and understands that dedicated lawyers work for the public good as well as for individual clients. The good lawyer has empathy and instinct and is able to judge people and circumstances quickly and maturely. The good lawyer is well-organised (not by others), panics rarely, keeps things in perspective and is not afraid to ask for help. Good lawyers have resilience and are able to weather failures and tough times and learn from them, and help others to do the same. The good lawyer is flexible, open to new ideas and prepared to take well-judged risks.
Such lawyers are concerned for the well-being of their clients, their colleagues, and most importantly, themselves. Accordingly, they actively seek to achieve a realistic work/life balance and recognise the importance of this for others. A good lawyer has a life outside the law, rich in relationships with family and friends, and in activities like the arts and sport, and diverse hobbies. A good lawyer who is also an employer will take time to get to know their employees and will attempt to ensure that employees get satisfaction and are valued in their work, and can achieve work/life balance also.
A good lawyer is a good communicator but is also a good listener, and will work to consult and allow others to be heard in the making of decisions that impact on them. However, a good lawyer also knows when it is appropriate to take control of consultation and bring it to an end. A good lawyer has good manners and uses these at all times. A good lawyer is a promise-keeper who follows through. A good lawyer is a vigilant time keeper who meets deadlines and responds to telephone calls and emails in a timely fashion.
A good lawyer does not overcharge and does not bend the rules for personal gain. A good lawyer owes duties to her or his client and to the court. A good lawyer does not misuse the media to advance a client’s case but relies in the main on effort and ability and good research and strategy. A good lawyer is not lazy and does not fly by the seat of her or his pants. A good lawyer puts in the hard yards, with the assistance of others, and does not hesitate to get to grips with tricky legal issues and with the complexities that arise in relation to each individual client. A good lawyer does not bluff and bluster and pretend competence where there is none. In those circumstances, a good lawyer gives the work to others with expertise or says: “I need time to get to grips with this. I’ll get back to you”.
A good lawyer is also a good citizen. This means carrying out some pro-bono work, doing legal aid, sitting on law society committees, on school or hospital boards, or at church or in the soup kitchen. The good lawyer remains interested in the development of the law, and responds to law reform initiatives in their area of expertise, sharing the benefit of a critical eye by making individual submissions or serving on committees that prepare submissions. And good lawyers may look further afield to use their skills for international good, such as providing specialist advice for poor nations or bodies who cannot afford legal advice.
The good lawyer is not in it for the money or status alone, though these things are advantageous and part of what makes being a lawyer an attractive career. A good lawyer knows that money and status alone do not happiness or good health guarantee. A good lawyer does not lose sight of why she or he got into law in the first place, and does not forget what it was like to be a fresh-faced law graduate in that first job. A good lawyer steps back from it all and finds something else to do if poor physical or emotional health and lack of job satisfaction mandates this.