At a recent conference, Toni Jaeger-Fine, assistant dean for international and non-J.D. programs at Fordham Law, was speaking to a former student about the current state of the legal profession. “There are a lot of really bright lawyers out there, in terms of legal skills, knowledge, and education,” the former student, who now serves on the managing committee of a major New York law firm, told Jaeger-Fine. “But that’s just not good enough anymore.”
Jaeger-Fine’s new book, Becoming a Lawyer: Discovering and Defining Your Professional Persona (West Academic Publishing), addresses what goes into being a successful lawyer in the modern era, beyond the legal skills and knowledge one learns in law school. The project draws upon research in the social sciences and law in order to illuminate how up-and-coming—and more seasoned—lawyers can use carefully honed personal and interpersonal skills to get ahead in their careers.
“What is really going to distinguish you is having a robust professional persona,” Jaeger-Fine says. In recent years, many law firms have introduced new categories in their employee evaluations, including client management, talent management, being supervised, and communication skills, in order to emphasize the growing importance of interpersonal skills in practicing law.
Jaeger-Fine is also sure to stress that the lessons found in the book are applicable beyond the legal profession. “It applies across any number of fields,” she says.
While the book offers much in the way of concrete advice concerning behaviors and attitudes—chapter topics include “Working with Others,” “Time Management and Organization,” and “Mindset and Dispositions”—Jaeger-Fine says that building a successful professional persona will be a different process for each person.
Hundreds of conversations with attorneys in various practice settings convinced Jaeger-Fine that there is no single definitive way to be a successful lawyer, particularly with regards to one’s professional persona. What matters, she says, is a balance of authenticity to oneself on the one hand with a willingness to evolve and adapt to one’s particular business environment, on the other hand.
Our unique personalities are “one of the very few things in life we have complete control over,” Jaeger-Fine adds. There is no reason why lawyers cannot work to cultivate their personas just as they cultivate their knowledge of the law, and she hopes this book will encourage more people to think intentionally about refining their professional personas.
“The goal of this book is to get you to think in a different way—to be more deliberate about the ways in which you behave and what you project,” she says.
Jaeger-Fine links this change in thinking to practical results; in chapter one, she writes that the book is “a practical and utilitarian guide to ways in which we can embrace attitudes and behaviors that are respected, admired, and appreciated by others; that allow us to be the best legal professionals we can be; and that distinguish us from others who lack a robust professional persona.”
Salary decisions, bonuses, and promotions are all on the line, thanks to the new emphasis on interpersonal skills in employee evaluations. Another reason why Jaeger-Fine’s book is increasingly important is that the traditional law firm model has been challenged by recent developments in technology (such as legal services incorporating artificial intelligence), the disaggregation of legal services (with different aspects of the legal process being contracted out to disparate legal firms for the best price), and the extreme sensitivity of clients to the cost of the legal services they outsource.
“The commoditized legal work that many of us from the older generation did—which was valued—is now not valued at all,” Jaeger-Fine says. “These things are going to be done by any average lawyer, or by a machine.”
Again, a robust personality will be required in order to stand out as the profession proceeds down an ever more technologically sophisticated path.
Perhaps the most significant takeaway for Jaeger-Fine as she was researching and writing this book was the importance of habit. “Everything in your life is based on habit, and if you develop good habits you are likely to succeed,” she says.