Becoming a Lawyer: Discovering and Defining Your Professional Persona

Toni Jaeger-Fine*

A. The Legal Professional Persona Revealed

This essay is a brief summary of my recent book, Becoming a Lawyer: Discovering and Defining Your Professional Persona (West Academic 2018).1 My book is based on several years of research and many years of ruminating about what is required for success in the legal profession. 2 I came up with the concept of the legal professional persona to describe a set of attitudes and behaviors that are critical to success, beyond the technical skills and knowledge that most lawyers possess. Becoming a Lawyer is my attempt to unpack and discuss these attitudes and behaviors that drive true success in the profession and beyond.

Developing a strong professional persona is perhaps more crucial than ever in this period of profound disruption in the legal industry. Recent changes in the profession, including intense competition for top jobs, make it more important than ever that we develop a robust professional persona. At the same time, the rise of alternative service providers and the proliferation of entrepreneurship in the legal profession allows each of us more options than legal professionals previously had.

The stunningly wonderful truth behind the concept of the legal professional persona is that it is eminently accessible to each of us with the right amount of dedication and intentionality. The attitudes and behaviors described below are not necessarily difficult to achieve, but reflect an investment in self-analysis – an investment that is well worth making. Our professional persona must be protected as the valuable asset that it is. In a world in which we may feel that much is out of our control, the development of a robust professional persona is well within our power. Take charge over how you develop yours.

Your professional persona is contextual and it changes over time. How we behave – or should behave – may not be the same across the range of professional circumstances in which we find ourselves. And the professional persona we embody at age 20 will not be the same one we embrace at the age 40 or 60. Additionally, our professional persona is, and must be, intimately linked to our personal persona. A professional persona that is not inextricably linked with one’s personal persona is inauthentic and ultimately unsustainable.

B. Legal Professional Persona

Building Blocks

Becoming a lawyer requires a solid foundation consisting of four building blocks: The stages of learning and achieving competence; the importance of internationalization and habit formation; the multiple dimensions of intelligence; and the need for all of us to embrace leadership qualities.

I. The Competence Problem

In the 1950s, Neil Burch came up with the four stages of learning – stages through which we all move in developing skill: Unconscious incompetence; conscious incompetence; conscious competence; and finally unconscious competence.

The model begins with two stages of incompetence – we begin at the level of unconscious incompetence. At this stage, we are so ignorant of our own incompetence that we may be deluded into thinking that we actually are skilled at the task or that we could learn it quickly and easily. Psychologist David Dunning has referred to people in this stage of unconscious incompetence as “confident idiots.”3.

As we better understand a task and its complexity, we become consciously incompetent. We recognize that we lack the specific skills of mastery and have an appreciation for

* Assistant Dean, Fordham Law School (New York City). The author is honored to have taught a course at Bucerius Law School every year since its inauguration and to be the recipient of the Bucerius Badge of Honor in 2017. She can be reached at Please also visit my blog at

1 Available at

2 My work and this essay focus on legal professionals and the legal profession, but most of the lessons of this book apply equally to other professions.

3 See David Dunning, We are All Confident Idiots, Pacific Standard (June 14, 2017), available at

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the difficulty of achieving competence in that skill.

When we achieve some competence over a task, we enter the realm of conscious competence – we are competent but still need to focus and work hard at the new task. Finally, when we achieve a greater level of competence, we become unconsciously competent – we are able to perform tasks with such a level of competence that we can do so almost unconsciously, without much focus or attention.

Moving through the stages of incompetence and finally achieving unconscious competence requires meaningful questioning, deep and sustained reflection, observation and imitation, and coachability. All of these enable us to perceive and ultimately overcome our weaknesses.

II. The Importance of Internalization and

Habit Formation

Habits are things that we do automatically with a genuine pattern of regularity. We rely on habit for much of our daily routine. Habits are enormously important to our professional development and make us more successful because they allow us to save time and energy and to work better under pressure. Developing good habits also often leads to the development of other good habits. Having strong habits, it turns out, also makes us happier.

Developing strong, sustainable habits is hard work. It is important to commit genuinely to a new habit, to visualize your new habit, and to work hard at your new habit. Do not allow exceptions from this new habit – regularity is crucially important in developing habits. It also helps if you find a way to make yourself accountable to the new habit – by keeping a journal or telling a friend, for instance.

Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, discusses something he calls the “habit loop.” A habit loop involves a cue or a trigger, the ensuing habitual action, and a reward. We can learn to re-engineer a habit loop by keeping the cue or trigger and the reward the same, and replacing one habitual action for another. Duhigg describes how he exchanged his habit of going to the cafeteria at 3:00 p.m. every day and eating a chocolate chip cookie while chatting with colleagues for another, more desirable habit – visiting and having a chat with a colleague at the same time every afternoon. He did this by keeping the cue the same and attempting different actions until he found the one that produced the same reward. In this same way, we can substitute undesirable habitual activities for actions that are more productive.

III. The Multiple Dimensions of Intelligence

Intelligence is a concept that is fraught for many of us. In days gone by, one’s intelligence quotient (IQ) was considered to be a vital predictor of success. Today, it is well- recognized that other forms of intelligence are more accurate predictors of success than IQ. In particular, emotional intelligence – the ability to understand and regulate one’s own emotions, and social intelligence – the ability to appreciate and react appropriately to the emotions of others, are considered to be more important tools for success than IQ. These are forms of intelligence that we can develop over the course of our lifetime, as opposed to IQ, which most people view as relatively static.

IV. Leadership for All

Contrary to how many view leadership, it has nothing to do with one’s role or status within an organization. Instead, it is about a mindset or orientation. In that sense, all of us need to be leaders.

A leader is someone who is a visionary, which means that she is goal oriented. A leader also is a change agent, in that she can move toward goal fulfillment. Leaders typically are characterized by a range of personal and interpersonal skills. Among the personal skills, leaders tend to have a strong moral and ethical core, are self-aware, self-regulate, and creative. In terms of interpersonal skills, leaders tend to are empathetic, work collaboratively, elicit and respond to feedback, act with humility, work toward maximizing the goals of others and the institution rather than focusing on personal goals, have a sense of humor (which can be self-deprecating but never at the expense of others), and have strong communication skills, including listening skills.

C. Self-Management:

Professionalism from the Inside

There are three principal elements behind self-management: Mindset and dispositions; time management; and wellbeing and sustainability.

I. Mindset and Dispositions

Mindset and dispositions are propensities, attitudes, moods, intentions, and inclinations that come to define us and our professional persona. These elements of our professional persona, like others, are well within our control. The mindset and dispositions needed for success include a positive mindset, a commitment to excellence, and character.

1. Positive Mindset

A positive mindset is one that is based on growth, optimism, enthusiasm and passion, and resiliency and grit.

A growth mindset is marked by a personal conviction that we can overcome perceived limits and become better with sustained effort. The lack of a positive mindset – a fixed mindset – is reflected in the view that we are what we are, we have pre-determined limits, and no amount of effort can make a difference. Those with a fixed mindset do not even attempt to improve themselves because they view their limits as inherent and unchangeable. A growth mindset gives each of us an incentive to improve and to reach our full potential. Choose growth.

An optimistic mindset is related to a growth mindset because it is marked by the belief that we can overcome obstacles and setbacks. It recognizes that such challenges are faced by everyone and are not unique to us. An optimistic mindset is both forward-looking (being optimistic for the future) and

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backward-looking (that challenges we have faced in the past are a normal part of life).

People who are enthusiastic and passionate love their work and are excited about every project as a challenge and an opportunity. Enthusiasm and passion give us energy to do our best work. They also are contagious; when we exhibit genuine enthusiasm and passion, others react in kind. Enthusiasm and passion are self-fulfilling prophecies. Seek them when you find them waning.

Grit and resilience are closely related concepts. Resilience is our ability to recover from adversity. Grit is perseverance for long-goals. Both reflect our drive, motivation, and ability to withstand and overcome challenges. Again, both relate to growth and optimism – the belief that we can overcome obstacles and persevere day after day, week after week, year after year.

2. Commitment to Excellence

A genuine commitment to excellence is based on a range of features. These include resourcefulness – using all resources at your disposal (including colleagues) to solve problems; diligence and dedication – absolute commitment to doing your best; self-discipline and willpower – the ability and willingness to make the sacrifices often needed in our professional lives; reliability – being the kind of person that others know can be relied upon; preparedness – being as ready as possible for any unexpected contingencies; flexibility – the ability to change course and adapt to new circumstances when the situation warrants; craftsmanship – appreciating the importance of attention to detail; creativity – allowing ourselves to think out of the proverbial box, to let our minds consider solutions that might not be readily apparent; and wisdom – the exercise of good judgment and doing the right thing at the right time.

3. Character

A robust professional persona requires character, which includes demonstrating gratitude – expressing thanks when someone does you a good turn, no matter how minor the gesture may have been; to be dignified in everything we do; to be discreet – not only with client confidences, which is a given, but with any sensitive information; humility – to understand that we do not always have the right answers and can learn from others, including unexpected sources; confidence – to have and project a sense of power over situations and your ability to do something with competence; authenticity – the development of a professional persona that is comfortable for us, that reflects our personal identify and values; integrity – acting within the bounds of a strong moral core, and acting in a manner that is internally consistent and reflective of a cohesive approach to life; humor – especially self-deprecating humor; and elegance – doing more than the right thing, taking the extra step to make people feel good when you can.

II. Time Management

Time management is one of the great challenges of contemporary life. The number of commitments each of us has, coupled with rising expectations that things be done with great speed, often leaves us with irreconcilable demands. Each of us needs to use time management techniques that are best suited to us in order to thrive in this fast-paced profession. Auditing your time and scheduling specific tasks are some ways to maintain control over our time.

One principle that is worthy of our attention is the urgent versus the important concept. As former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower said, what is urgent is not necessarily important and what is important is not necessarily urgent. Urgency in these days of instantaneous communication is easily confused for importance. Take a moment to determine whether tasks that seem important merely seem that way because they appear to be urgent. To the extent possible, we should prioritize important tasks over those that are not.

III. Wellbeing

Wellbeing is a multidimensional concept that includes physical wellness, emotional and mental health, the pursuit of creative or intellectually challenging activities that allows for personal satisfaction, growth, and enrichment, a sense of meaningfulness and purpose in life, and the human need to be connected and to have a well-developed support network.

Lawyers as a group suffer disproportionately to the general population from a series of maladies, including drug and alcohol abuse, depression and other forms of mental illness, and suicide.

The good news is that, at least in the United States, the stigma formerly attached to many of these maladies has been lifted. Numerous highly accomplished attorneys recently have discussed their struggles publicly, and these issues are far more out in the open then they were in prior days. All U.S. states have confidential resources for attorneys who are struggling.

Wellbeing matters for a number of reasons. There is, of course, the person, family, and community case for wellbeing. But there is also an important business case for wellbeing: It is indisputable that attorneys are more competent when they experience a state of wellbeing. Institutions have reason to promote wellbeing, reflected in the notion of an additional contagion: When members of a community are healthy and satisfied, their sense of wellbeing spreads to others in the community. The converse is also true. Attorneys (and others) who experience a sense of wellbeing are more likely to remain at their firms, thereby limiting attrition – which is both costly for firms and annoying for clients.

There are of course many ways to promote wellbeing. The overarching lesson is this: Prioritize wellbeing as a career-promoting rather than career-limiting feature; be alert to signs of change in your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around you, and address them; and do everything you can to promote a culture of wellbeing in your

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institutions and communities.

D. Relationships:

Professionalism with the Outside

Law is a profession based on relationships, and success depends largely on our ability to work effectively with a range of individuals.

I. Foundations for Working with Others

Professionalism with the outside turns on a number of discrete elements and begins with the basics like civility – being courteous and kind to all, including those with whom we are in an adversarial relationship. One wonderful tip comes from Eric Grossman, the Chief Legal Officer of Morgan Stanley, who advocates the 24-hour rule: When someone does you wrong or upsets you, when circumstances permit, wait 24 hours before responding. In that time, you will have had the time to think over the situation and make a more measured response. You may even realize that a response is not warranted. Civility is a healthy sign of your honor, something to be defended vigilantly.4

Other civility basics include things like being reliable and taking responsibility. Being reliable means that your supervisor can release psychological ownership over a project because she is confident in your ability to get the job done, to get it done well, and to get it done by the deadline. Taking responsibility means that you are accountable for your actions and accept blame when appropriate. Everyone makes mistakes – it is how we respond to errors that defines us.

The ability to collaborate is a critically important aspect of a strong professional persona. The legal profession is fundamentally collaborative. Take opportunities to work with others and learn how to manage that process as successfully as possible.

II. Working Across Boundaries

Working with others involves working with a range of people who are different from us along any number of characteristics – things like generational issues, race, gender, and a full array of other differences we may encounter. Dealing with people who are different from us requires an understanding of our implicit biases and nurturing our ability to think inclusively.

Implicit biases are deeply ingrained prejudices that each of us has, regardless of how open-minded and receptive we think we are. The difficulty with such biases is precisely their implicit nature – we are generally unaware of such biases, which makes it difficult to address and correct them. Human reasoning occurs via two cognitive systems: The first is rapid and error prone, and is intuitive rather than the product of conscious thought; the second is more deliberative and slower. The first system generates our implicit biases, which the mind is conditioned to rationalize. Managing such biases requires deep and thoughtful effort.

Cross-cultural sensitivity is the ability to leverage different perspectives from a diverse group of people. The fundamental premise of cross-cultural sensitivity is that problem-solving and decision-making is enhanced when the problem is viewed through the lens of different people. It is irrefutable that each of us approaches matters from our own individual perspective, borne of our unique experiences; and that the more perspectives we engage, the better the result. This certainty is behind much of the push by general counsel (and others) to diversify the legal profession – it is not only the right thing to do, it will lead to better results for clients.

III. The Art of Being Supervised

Most of us spend much of our professional time being supervised by others, so it is important to understand how to do so with grace and maturity. Here are some tips for being supervised:

Preserve Your Supervisor’s Time and Energy – Take initiative and solve problems. Recognize that your boss’s time and energy is more valuable than yours. Bring solutions to your supervisor, not just problems. Be proactive and resourceful so as to help your supervisor make the best use possible of her time.

Make Your Supervisor Look Good –There is probably no quicker way to destroy your career than undermining your boss. Always make your boss look good. This does not mean that you cannot disagree with your supervisor or make suggestions – you should, but there is a time and a place and a way to do that.

Understand Your Level of Discretion – It is important to understand and work within the level of discretion that your supervisor expects. Different bosses will have different expectations about your level of authority. If in doubt, ask.

Adapt Your Working Style to That of Your Boss – Supervisors will have different preferences in terms of how they work. Do your best to adapt your style to your supervisor’s preferences.

Follow Up – Do not expect that your work is done when you submit something to your supervisor. It is the junior’s responsibility to keep the boss on track. Follow up as appropriate to ensure that deadlines and other milestones are met.

Keep Your Supervisor Informed of Your Availability and the Status of Pending Projects – Information is power, and your boss should be fully informed of any limits on your availability and about the status of pending projects.

Understand Expectations – It is important that we understand what is expected of us with respect to specific projects. At a minimum, before embarking on a task, understand the deliverable, the deadline, any limitations on resources to be used (such as paid research databases), and who you can

4 See my blog post Don’t Be a Jerk, available at

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consult with questions. When in doubt, ask.

Accept Feedback as an Opportunity – Many of us view feedback as criticism, but feedback properly should be seen as an investment in our future. When someone offers constructive suggestions, view it as an opportunity to improve. Listen intently to feedback and internalize and act upon it as much as possible.

IV. Talent Management

Talent management is important for a number of reasons. Proper talent management allows supervisors and institutions to get the most out of their employees, maximizes employee effectiveness and efficiency, and minimizes turnover.

Here are some ideas for successful talent management:

Use Fair and Meaningful System of Work Assignments – Supervisors should ensure that similarly-situated team members get comparable opportunities to develop and demonstrate their skills. Assignments should also take account of individual abilities and interest when possible.

Involve Subordinates Genuinely – Junior members of the team should be involved in their work in a meaningful way. They should be given a sense of autonomy, responsibility, and control, consistent with firm and client needs; and they should have opportunities to observe more senior members of the team in a range of practice settings. The more employees feel like they are part of a team the more empowered and invested they will be in their work.

Model Appropriate Behavior – If as a parent you have ever tried to tell your children that they should do as you say and not as you do, you probably know that this is an unproductive and even counterproductive strategy. The same is true at the workplace. Model the kind of behavior you want your employees to emulate.

Take Responsibility for the Mistakes of the Team – A good boss realizes that she is responsible when something goes wrong. She will never throw a member of the team under the proverbial bus but will accept responsibility for any mistakes. Taking responsibility is the right thing for a boss to do, and a wonderful way to secure the loyalty of your team members.

Embrace a Culture of Teamwork – As indicated above, collaboration is central to the practice of law. Signal to those you supervise that you value collaboration and cooperation, and demonstrate your own ability to work as part of the team.

Have Patience – The Dunning-Kruger effect discussed above has a corollary: That those of us who have achieve unconscious competence over an activity or skill believe (mistakenly) that this activity is easy for others. This can lead to a lack of patience with those who are incompetent at the particular skill or activity. It is important for managers to realize that skills that have become easy for them are not (yet) necessarily easy for others. Be patient as others develop professionally.

Be Clear and Reasonable About Expectations – If we want juniors to perform, it is important that they be given the tools to enable them to do so. This includes background information and sufficient context to do the project, along with information such as what the deliverable should be, the due date, any limitations on resources, and other pertinent information. Expectations should additionally be reasonable. Unreasonable expectations will frustrate both the employee and the supervisor.

Provide Effective Feedback – Managers must provide effective feedback. Feedback is effective if it is meaningful, continuous, and delivered openly and honestly. Feedback systems should be reciprocal – supervisors should ask for feedback from their juniors and think carefully about what role, if any, they might have played in the employee’s lapses. Feedback also should take into account implicit biases. The best feedback incorporates the views of multiple people.

Make Wellbeing a Priority – Employees value a culture of wellbeing, and managers who make wellbeing – their own and the members of their team – a priority will be appreciated. There are of course also the many benefits that come from wellbeing, including better work product and less turnover. Supervisors should take a personal interest in the members of their team and address any concerns they may have about an individual’s wellbeing. The manager should signal concern when appropriate and a willingness to help.

V. Effective Communication

Communication skills are foundational for attorneys, making learning how to communicate effectively important.

1. Communications Basics

Communications basics include things like considering your audience; being precise and as efficient as possible in whatever form of communication you use; being formal in any kind of professional communication; and communicating without legalese whenever possible.

2. Written Communications

a) The Five Cs of Legal Writing

Legal writing, like other forms of writing, should be clear – straightforward and easy to follow; concise – written in a way that makes the best use of the reader’s time and energies; convincing – written work should leave the reader convinced that the analysis is correct; complete – the writer should take the reader through each step in the analysis. Do not omit steps in the thought process because they seem obvious to you. Answer each question that might arise in the reader’s mind; and candid – never manipulate, misstate, mischaracterize the law or facts. Absolute credibility is required.

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b) Style and Process Matters

Always produce a document that is attractive and that is accessible to the reader. Begin with a helpful introduction and a roadmap. Make sure that the work is well-structured. Be sure that your writing is internally consistent. Take care with commas, apostrophes, and similar niceties, and take special care with attribution of authorities. Provide an appropriate conclusion.

c) The Importance of the Editing Process

Editing is often said to be the most important stage of the writing process. Spend as much time as you can critically revising your own work. When possible, leave some time before your penultimate version and the final version as the distance this provides may help you see errors and identify areas for improvement

3. Oral Communications

Oral communications, like their written counterparts, should be clear, succinct, precise, and well-organized. Oral communication also requires active listening, a skill at which we are worse at than we think. If we develop our active listening skills, we will be able to hear and retain more of what is communicated to us.

Finally, there are great advantages to understanding body language – body language is a powerful tool – and how it impacts communication. If we learn to use positive body language, it can meaningfully add to what we say with our words. Understanding body language also allows us to detect hidden subtext in what others say to us.

VI. Your Public Professional Persona

Our public professional persona is an element that needs development and nurturing. The first and most fundamental principle of the public professional persona is the need to follow ethical and organizational policies.

Attorneys and aspiring legal professionals should build a public persona that will enable and promote their image and the image of their organizations. Create a public persona by being active in bar and other trade associations and by writing – even blog posts or other short pieces that allow you to develop a reputation within a particular field.

Use social media thoughtfully. Be careful not to put yourself in situations in which your professionalism is compromised. Do regular audits of yourself on several search engines, make sure your settings are appropriate, and tag yourself to receive updates when your name is mentioned. If something unfortunate is out there, prospective employers and clients will find it. If there is something on the web that is unflattering, do what you can to have it removed. If you cannot get it removed, you can bury it by getting content posted that will move the compromising material lower down on search results.

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The process of working on Becoming a Lawyer gave me deep insights into my own professional persona that I did not expect – into what I do well but much more importantly areas in which I can improve. This demonstrated to me that becoming a lawyer is an evolving, lifelong process. My hope is that Becoming a Lawyer will give readers a better appreciation for the process. Enjoy the journey.