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Professional Development

What Does It Take to Be a Great Lawyer? The Competency of Curiosity

By Meyling "Mey" Ly Ortiz

Law students and young lawyers often ask more seasoned lawyers what it takes to be a great lawyer. There are lots of answers to that difficult question, though admittedly, it may depend on who you ask, how long they’ve been practicing, and their practice area. For me, an often overlooked answer is the competency of being intellectually curious and asking questions.

Being intellectually curious is a skill that can easily set baby lawyers apart from their contemporaries.

This Common Faulty Presumption Can Stunt Your Growth as a New Lawyer

Most new lawyers tend to lean hard into exuding only confidence and capability. As a result, they feel that asking questions is somehow out of bounds because it is presumed to be seen as stupidity. This faulty presumption makes it hard for young lawyers to ask clarifying questions or “why” questions when given an assignment because they are afraid to look like they don’t know what they’re doing. Rather, when given a new assignment, baby lawyers tend to furiously write copious notes, receiving the assignment as “marching orders,” only to take them to their office, close their door, and expend a lot of energy and stress trying to figure out, first, what their actual assignment is, and then second, how to execute in the time allotted.

There can be a similar pattern when turning work product in, where young lawyers simply submit their work and don’t ask questions or for feedback. Or when they are given feedback, they sit quietly and nod profusely, eager to show that they “get” it, even if they don’t. This pattern tends to repeat itself over the first year or two and can be quite stunting to a young lawyer’s growth.

The All-Important “Why”

What’s missing in this common pattern is the competency of intellectual curiosity — which is hallmarked by asking questions, including the all-important “why?” As emulated by young children, perhaps to the chagrin of exhausted parents, asking questions is how we learn and a way of showing interest and higher thinking. Sure, a young lawyer can be a legal robot, deeply immersed in the cycle of input of discrete assignment and output of work product.  But to really set yourself apart and grow, you have to understand why things are done the way they are (or at least why that particular lawyer does it that way). You also must understand how the pieces you work on fit into the bigger picture or strategy. You can’t get that if you’re too afraid to ask questions, whether for clarification, your own edification or for feedback so you can improve in the future.

Demonstrate Your Curiosity

Here are tangible examples of how a young lawyer can flex the skill of intellectual curiosity:

  • After the opportunity to observe a hearing, deposition or mediation, schedule time with the partner to ask questions that will help you learn from the experience such as:
    • How long did it take you to prepare for the hearing and what did you do to prepare for the hearing?
    • What was your strategy with taking the expert witness’s deposition or with the settlement offers during mediation?
  • After you turn in an assignment, schedule time with the partner to either
    • Ask questions about the feedback you received, such as Why the change?
    • Or if you didn’t receive any feedback, ask for suggestions on how you could do better next time.

If exercised artfully, asking appropriate questions will show others you work with that you are genuinely interested in the work and learning from those with whom you work, that you are thinking critically about the case or matter, and that you are intentional about your growth and career. More importantly, the practice of asking questions will actually help you grow in your practice, and therein lies the power of intellectual curiosity.

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Meyling Meyling "Mey" Ly Ortiz

Meyling “Mey” Ly Ortiz is Managing Counsel of Employment at Toyota Motor North America, Inc. Her passions include mentoring, championing diversity and inclusion, and a personal blog: At home, you can find her doing her best to be a “fun” mom to a toddler and preschooler and chasing her best self on her Peloton (her handle is Meybe if you want her to try to chase you too). You can follow her on LinkedIn and @Meybe_JD on Twitter. (And you knew this was coming: Her opinions are hers alone.)

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