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How to be an effective lawyer - Colin Levy, Salary.com

Colin Levy, 6 February 2020

Legal operations

What makes a good lawyer? We catch up with Colin S. Levy, corporate counsel at Salary.com, to identify key skills lawyers can implement to work smarter and drive collaboration. 

Welcome back, Colin 👋

Thank you!

How would you define a good lawyer? 

Lawyers are frequently asked to wear many hats and offer feedback, ideas and opinions instead of legal advice. One of the most common hats is of a ‘friend and advisor’, but historically, lawyers have struggled to switch from their traditional mindset to accommodate this. The ability to change personas to manage a situation is essential for any good lawyer, but it’s a challenge because lawyers are trained to analyze situations legally instead of holistically. 

How can they think more holistically?

It starts with realizing that the law doesn’t operate separately from the real world. Business does not stop because of the lack of clarity within a certain law or because there isn’t yet a law in place to direct a commercial operation. So, when you are asked to opine on a topic, you're being asked to offer an analysis that can have a rippling impact, extending beyond legal.

Lawyers need to train themselves to be approachable and think in “human terms”. Suppose they were approached by their best friend, who had a non-legal dilemma - how would the lawyer respond to the problem? How would they address their friend? How would they offer advice? It's that kind of mindset you need to bring to the practice of law.

“It’s a huge persistent myth that legal tech can solve all your problems. Lawyers shouldn’t expect legal tech to be a panacea”

You’ve spoken about the importance of lawyers sustaining relationships with other people. How can lawyers reduce friction between legal and commercial?

When I started at salary.com, one of my first tasks was setting up time to meet with key stakeholders. I did this for two reasons - a) to introduce myself and explain how I operate and b) to get as much information from them regarding: 

  • Their day-to-day work
  • Bottlenecks they’ve experienced in the past
  • How those bottlenecks were resolved
  • What methods work best for them
  • Working style

Using that information I got to know them better and also adapted my style to fit their working rhythm. Learning about key elements of everyone’s working style can help you hit the ground running.

I also created ‘lunches with legal’ events, where I have lunch with key members of the sales team to get to know them better. This gives them an opportunity to know me on a personal level and understand my role as a partner and enabler. These methods illustrate a larger idea of lawyers treating people as people, and dealing with them at a point of mutual understanding. 

Are there other skills lawyers should have that aren’t as well represented in the industry?

A good lawyer understands the language of business and how to communicate in that language. Those skills can be taught through more practical courses - for example, during law school, one of the classes that I took was an advanced tax law class. This included negotiating complex deals and considering legal and financial risks. It was an effective way to apply business skills to legal transactions.

A good lawyer also understands that tech tools are available to help - and can use them if and when appropriate. Before moving to tech implementation, though, it's critical for lawyers to identify their specific problems and determine what an ideal solution would look like. It’s a huge and persistent myth that legal tech can solve all your problems. Lawyers shouldn’t expect legal tech to be a panacea.

"Lawyers don’t operate in an isolated vacuum; they’re operating in the context of the law and a larger world, and it’s essential to tap into both lenses"

So how tech can make lawyers more approachable?

Technology like contract management solutions can introduce a sense of transparency to the transactional process. A lot of tools can make lawyers more effective by allowing other teams to visualize legal’s working strategy. For a long time lawyers have treated themselves as an exclusive group, essentially a guild, and this approach hasn’t yielded the best results. It has served to damage the reputation of lawyers, as well as the professional relationships between legal and other teams.

There is an ongoing perception of lawyers being detached and uninvested. Legal tech can help with this by automating low-priority tasks and freeing up legal's time, allowing lawyers to focus on building relationships. When there’s a substantive level of trust towards the lawyer, clients are more inclined to approach with issues before they escalate, as opposed to afterwards, as has historically been the case.

What key learnings would you pass on to the legal community?

Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees! When you consider legal issues, it’s important to understand that the issue has a context outside the legal world. The decisions you make can affect business perspectives and relationships with the customer, and it’s important to propose alternatives that satisfy these concerns. Lawyers don’t operate in an isolated vacuum; they’re operating in the context of the law and a larger world, and it’s essential to tap into both lenses to become effective and collaborative.

Thanks Colin!

Find out more about legal innovation on Colin's blog

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Topics: Legal operations

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