Vol. 24 No. 11 (November 2014) pp. 533-536

THE GOOD LAWYER: SEEKING QUALITY IN THE PRACTICE OF LAW, by Douglas O. Linder and Nancy Levit. New York: Oxford University Press. 2014. 330pp. Hardcover $24.95. ISBN: 9780199360239.

Reviewed by Suzanne Dennis Borland, Department of Legal Studies, University of Illinois at Springfield. Email:

Since attorneys in popular media are often portrayed as money-hungry, unethical, selfish creatures, one might wonder whether there is such a thing as a “good lawyer.” In THE GOOD LAWYER: SEEKING QUALITY IN THE PRACTICE OF LAW law professors Douglas O. Linder and Nancy Levit persuasively argue that good lawyers do indeed exist, and that they achieve quality in their legal practices by possessing and developing certain traits and skills. By skillfully entwining historical and contemporary (as well as fictional and real-life) examples of lawyering with applicable findings of recent social science research, the authors have created an engaging book which should encourage and inspire lawyers everywhere to strive for quality in their work.

THE GOOD LAWYER follows from the authors’ 2010 work THE HAPPY LAWYER: MAKING A GOOD LIFE IN THE LAW. During research interviews for their initial book they discovered a strong link between happiness/career satisfaction and doing meaningful work. In attempting to illuminate what “good work” looks like they discovered that it is admittedly a lofty goal, which much be continuously aspired to. Lawyers may be predisposed to some of the values and skills that make achieving quality in the practice of law easier, but these important qualities can also be developed through insightfulness and intentionality.

Of all the ideals manifested by the proverbial “good lawyer,” empathy, in the authors’ opinion, reigns supreme. In discussing the importance of empathy, Atticus Finch, the legendary trial attorney created by Harper Lee in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, is quoted: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” Empathy is paramount, as it enables an attorney to understand her clients’ interests, tell her clients’ stories in a more powerful way, and gain her clients’ appreciation for leaving them feeling valued (p. 2); empathy also reduces miscommunication between lawyers and clients (p. 16). Indeed, renowned litigator Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College, located at Thunderhead Ranch in Wyoming, focuses on the importance of storytelling, which, to maximize its effectiveness, requires an empathic storyteller (pp. 2-11).

Since about 90% of empathy levels are culturally, as opposed to genetically, determined (p. 13), the authors provide a helpful list of suggestions about how to improve one’s empathic abilities (p. 17). However, they also caution that too much empathy can impede a lawyer’s ability to serve his client, citing William Kunstler’s empathetic and impassioned, yet ultimately ineffective, representation of the “Chicago 8” accused of inciting [*533] riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention (p. 25). Good lawyers know how much to empathize and when they need to detach to maintain a professional distance; this idea, that balance is the key to ensuring a quality life in the law, surfaces throughout the book.

Other personality traits possessed by “good lawyers” are courage, integrity, realism, a strong sense of justice, clarity of purpose, and an ability to transcend emotionalism. As with the section on empathy, these characteristics are skillfully illuminated by references to cutting-edge research and case studies of lawyers who exhibited those desirable qualities. For example, studies evidencing that attorneys, like many professionals, hold an unwarranted overly confident bias toward optimism in their ability to predict case outcomes (pp. 159-164) were compelling. Similarly, the narrative about attorney John Michael Doar, who championed civil rights by, inter alia, guarding James Meredith during his first night in a dormitory on the University of Mississippi campus, prosecuting Ku Klux Klan members (despite death threats) in the “Mississippi Burning” trial, and single-handedly attempting to calm angry protesters following the assassination of Medgar Evers (pp. 39-47), provided undeniable support for the authors’ contention that courage is an important virtue for “good lawyers” to possess.

Good lawyers also have willpower, value others in the legal community, are persuasive, and utilize both intuition and deliberative thinking. The book’s discussion of those first two qualities capitalized on the opportunity to discuss a couple of societal problems often attributed on a proportionally higher basis to the legal profession: addiction and a lack of civility. While the authors are to be applauded for acknowledging the exceptionally high rates of drug abuse and alcoholism among lawyers due to the intense pressures of law practice (p. 95), their proposed solution to those problems is a bit trite; anyone who has suffered from an addiction likely recognizes that “[s]imply believing that you have the ability to resist impulses … and building a solid support network” (pp. 95-96) are unlikely to ensure recovery. On the topic of incivility, a bit too much time seemed devoted to persuading the reader that Democrats and Republicans really can be friends (pp. 114-121), while this reader would have appreciated a more in-depth discussion about why today’s legal community is generally regarded as lacking civility more than in generations past and what individual lawyers can do to turn that tide.

Perhaps the most interesting theme suggested throughout the book is that America’s legal education system runs contrary to the development of the skills and values required by “good lawyers.” Indeed, on the front end, the traditional law school admissions model primarily rewards logical thinking skills by prioritizing an applicant’s success on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) (p. 20). If admissions committees placed less weight on LSAT scores and more on indicators of emotional intelligence (pp. 20-21) it might lead to different types of students being admitted to law school.

However, the admissions process is most certainly not the only “problem” in legal education. Professor Ian Gallacher, Syracuse University College of Law, [*534] identifies the oxymoron: law schools strive to produce graduates who think like lawyers, making it difficult if not impossible for them to think like and communicate with their clients, who are not lawyers (p. 23). Indeed, Gerry Spence complains that law students “are trained to deny their emotions and humanness,” yet they’ll be “called upon to represent human beings who are emotional” (p. 23).

Professor Kristin B. Gerdy, director of the Advocacy Program at Brigham Young University, has proposed one solution to the problem of new lawyers lacking empathy. She advocates for law schools to offer students a more client-centered education, in lieu of the traditional curriculum focusing on the legal doctrine espoused by appellate court cases (p. 21). Her argument is that utilizing small group discussions, client interaction, casebooks that personalize parties’ stories, and self-reflective writing opportunities early in a student’s legal education would result in lawyers who have cultivated empathy and related virtues (pp. 22-23).

This comprehensive approach to changing our legal education model would likely also enable law students to develop many of the other “soft skills” that THE GOOD LAWYER convincingly contends attorneys need to achieve quality in their legal practices. For example, a “growth” mindset (valuing and learning from experiences despite their outcomes, in appreciation that abilities can be improved) is preferred over a “fixed” mindset (which espouses that one’s abilities are predetermined and unchangeable) (pp. 76-80), as the former enables greater willpower. The more determined lawyer will be able to survive and even learn from her mistakes, instead of criticizing her self-worth and abilities because of them. This is important, as lack of willpower often leads to devastating emotional traps (anxiety, boredom, impatience and addiction) (pp. 89-96).

Regrettably, the authors correctly identify law schools’ anticipated responses to the idea of teaching students how to develop their soft skills. “Imagine the objections that a proposal to teach courage or (fill in your favorite virtue here) would prompt from faculty members. They will harrumph about courage not being teachable, complain that the subject is hopelessly squishy and belongs in the Philosophy Department, question its relation to the practice, and worry about how the decision to offer such a course would be viewed by alumni or colleagues in other law schools. Then there’s the personal cost to the teacher. Teaching about courage hardly seems to be the first rung on the ladder to a tenured position at Harvard” (p. 56).

Although I am unconvinced that legal academia will heed the astute wisdom contained in THE GOOD LAWYER, it is indeed courageous that Linder and Levit started the conversation about seeking quality in the practice of law. Last year’s’s List of Top 10 Happiest and Unhappiest Jobs (based on more than 65,000 employee reviews from 2012) ranked “Associate Attorney” as the #1 Unhappiest Job. If happiness in one’s legal career is directly related to achieving helpful outcomes in meaningful cases, law schools need to focus on helping their students accomplish just that. The American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of [*535] Legal Education’s Final Report (2014) encourages law schools to utilize innovative ways to prepare their students to practice law, including a shift away from traditional doctrinal education. Perhaps this is the time to make law school not only a better value, but also, by considering how it might integrate the development of skills and virtues discussed in this book, a more effective preparation for its students to embark upon satisfying, quality legal careers, thus becoming “good lawyers.”


“The Happiest and Unhappiest Jobs,”

American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of Legal Education Final Report and Recommendations.

© Copyright 2014 by the author, Suzanne Dennis Borland.