Tiana Epati is the New Zealand Law Society’s Gisborne branch President. Ms Epati works with Rishworth Wall & Mathieson and specialises in criminal law.
It goes without saying that an excellent lawyer requires a combination of high intelligence, strong analytical and advocacy skills, and an ability to communicate effectively (both verbally and in writing). It is also a “given” that all good lawyers are always well prepared: intelligence and skill is nothing without good preparation.
So when looking at the question of what attributes make lawyers great, over and above the abilities necessary to be competent, I always think of what my father once told me. He said that to be a great judge you have to be more than just an excellent lawyer. You need to possess what are known as the three Cs:
- the common touch;
- common sense; and
- above all else, compassion.
As a criminal lawyer who is court day and in day out, I understand how important these qualities are to the function of our justice system. Compassion, in particular, for all the stakeholders involved when dealing in human affairs is vital and can profoundly affect the experience a person will have in the criminal courts.
Just as these three qualities are necessary in a great judge, they also are the qualities needed to be a great lawyer. Being practical and having the ability to communicate and understand parties from all walks of life – ranging from the judge at the front of the room, to the witnesses, registrar, and all the way to the defendant in the dock – are necessary and invaluable skills to have if you want to be effective. And that’s the essence of being a great lawyer; being effective.
Over time I have added my own Cs: commitment and consistency. These last two come from something my father said to me when I first decided to become a lawyer. Announcing my decision to “follow in his footsteps” he said: “There are far too many lawyers in the world but not enough good ones. If you do this [become a lawyer] be one of the good ones. If you don’t think you can be one of the good ones, don’t do it. What we do is too important to be mediocre.”
I have never forgotten it. Every day I remind myself of the commitment I have made to be the best I can be and ensure there is consistency in my approach to everything I do. Irrespective of whether my client is privately funded, legally aided or pro bono, I am committed to doing the best job I can.
When speaking to newly admitted lawyers I often tell them: “be one of the good lawyers. In fact, be one of the great ones. From today, you will have the opportunity to make change in people’s lives, both great and small. You will have the chance to make things better and, in doing so, in turn to inspire and lead”.
These are, I realise, aspirational words, but being good and being great are noble aspirations and, therefore, appropriate.
In writing this, I am being deliberately brief. That is because I am convinced that the path to being a great lawyer or a great judge lies in something as simple as having the three Cs: the common touch, common sense and compassion.