In Olympic parlance, law is a decathlon

 Sybil Dunlop, The Daily Record Newswire

Watching the Olympics this past month, I was impressed with how many sports test only one element of competence — usually speed or distance. As a result of this singular metric, there is only one way to earn gold as the best ski jumper or the best bobsledder — jump the farthest or sled the fastest.

My Olympic dreams were dashed long ago (when I was 17 and realized I was too old to ever be an Olympic gymnast). But this year, another thought occurred to me as I watched the Olympics: There could never be a gold medal event for lawyering. There is no one skill that makes a lawyer great or a singular measure of success. Indeed, there are thousands of ways to be an excellent lawyer — and the longer I practice, the more I witness strikingly diverse approaches to excellent practice.

In law school, I had a more narrow view of what it meant to be an excellent lawyer. A lawyer should write well, excel at oral advocacy, and know the law. And law school, of course, conveys the subconscious message that doing well in law school correlates to excellence in practice. The bar exam has an even narrower focus, asking whether you can memorize a series of ancient property rules that you may never need again.

When I began practicing, however, I realized that law school (and the bar exam) previewed only a narrow slice of a lawyer’s work. The legal profession rewards those who excel at a much broader range of skills including networking, project management, client communications, negotiations, case strategy, creative problem solving, efficiency, pathos and empathy, as well as oral argument, brief writing, and legal research. (And this is just my litigator list.)

When I look at my peers, it’s inspiring to see that success results from a diverse range of talents and skill sets. A former theater director brings his dramatic sense of narrative to bear in fabulous written advocacy. A former engineer achieves success through her meticulous preparation and research. A law school colleague and brilliant oral advocate (who initially struggled on law school exams because he did not know how to type) became a successful prosecutor. Our profession has room for brilliant artists and architects as well as intellectuals and pragmatic problem-solvers. (And while I am not advocating any dramatic overhaul of our legal education system, it would be nice if law school reminded folks of this fact more often.)

Our career’s ability to reward and recognize a diverse range of talents and skills is inspiring. We aren’t all trying to emulate the fastest Russian bobsled team. We can define success more individually. In learning to be a great lawyer, we can look to our colleagues’ talents and emulate one person’s brief writing abilities and another person’s negotiation tactics. As a younger lawyer, I am beginning to cobble together a skill set using just this method. Sometimes I watch a brilliant oral argument and think, “I could never pull off that style.” At other times I think, “That technique might work for me — I’ll practice that approach next time.” No one is going to tell us that we can’t achieve success because we can’t match Mikaela Shiffrin or Usain Bolt for speed.

Are there any skills that are common to every great lawyer? Ask a few lawyers and get as many answers. As for me, however, I can think of only two: hard work and caring about being a great lawyer. Woody Allen famously said that 80 percent of success is showing up, and my answer may simply be hitting at that same truth. In getting into law school and passing the bar, we all have the raw intelligence to practice law. Now we just have to show up.  Showing up, of course, means more than just sitting at your desk. To me, showing up means bringing my full skill set to bear on each new challenge. Achieving excellence is within everyone’s grasp — we need to show up and work to develop our own talents.

Sen. Al Franken spoke at Andy Luger’s recent investiture as U.S. attorney. He joked about use of the term “super lawyer,” to describe lawyers. In his prior occupation (acting and writing) Franken noted that awards usually describe the recognized honor — the best writer received an award for “best writing.” The term “super lawyer,” he joked, made it sound like we were all super heroes. While I chuckled at the joke, Franken hit upon a truth: It would be impossible to give a single award to the “best lawyer.” The most any of us can do is hope to be super in our own way.


Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at


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