I spoke recently to young lawyers about the keys to a successful law career. I wish I could say that I developed original content for the speech, but I confess that I didn’t. I simply repeated portions of a speech delivered by David Boies in 2007 at a convention I was fortunate to attend. Boies, as you probably know, is one of America’s greatest trial lawyers. What Boies said that day has never left me.
Success in the practice of law, Boies said, has three components—Clarity, Credibility, and Conviction. Each is a necessity, and the lack of any one is crippling. The path to each is a journey, and none are ever fully mastered. All of us are still learning.
With apologies to Mr. Boies, I shall try to elaborate on each in my own words, as the passage of time has dimmed my recollection of much of what he said.
Clarity – the quality of being clear; the quality of coherence and intelligibility; the quality of being easy to see or hear; sharpness of image or sound. Another puts it as thus: “Freedom from indistinctness or ambiguity.”
Most of the people you meet in your professional life (lawyers and judges) are busy and have short attention spans. If psychologists are correct, people form opinions about you in seconds based only on your appearance or your first few utterances. If your writings are confused or weak, your points are lost. You have a short amount of time to grab attention, articulate your client’s position, and make a difference. Don’t screw it up with unintelligible words and phrases. Speak and write simply, sharply, and cleanly. Be free from indistinctness or ambiguity.
The single best advice I was ever given about legal writing was this: Write your first draft with reckless abandon and pour your heart into what you want to say. Then, walk away from the document, and when you return, go through each sentence and remove as many words as you can without destroying the meaning of the sentence. Remove. Lessen. Reduce. Shrink.
How does one achieve, or rather, earn Clarity? Hopefully, you have a trusted someone in your professional life who is your strongest critic. The person that bleeds on your drafts. The person who tells you that you have a lot to learn. The person who tells you less is more and more is waste. Listen and learn from your critics.
A final point on Clarity. I think it is the easiest of the three qualities to improve upon. Credibility and Conviction are more so traits than talents like Clarity. Clarity is subject to trial and error and can be made better over time. If Clarity eludes you, seek and you shall find.
Credibility – the quality of being trusted and believed in; the quality of being convincing or believable; another term for “street cred.”
No lawyer can declare their own credibility. It is either earned in the minds of the court or your adversaries (perhaps during a trial or in repeated dealings), or it precedes you in the form of reputation. A dozen truthful statements don’t earn you Credibility, but one half-truth destroys it. Clarity is a moment-by-moment thing—you can be unclear and lost in the morning, but return in the afternoon and deliver the most cogent argument of your life. But Credibility is nothing like her sister. When your Credibility is destroyed in the morning, she does not reappear in the afternoon.
Credibility is telling the Court and counsel opposite something they don’t know that hurts your case but you are ethically obligated to share. Credibility is showing the jury your most powerful evidence in a truthful manner, even if it means you must also inform them the evidence has caveats that might imperil your case. (Never put your credibility at risk by thinking your opponent might not bring the caveats to light.) Credibility is confessing the countervailing law. Credibility is answering the judge’s questions truthfully and accurately.
That sounds easy, but the things that test one’s Credibility hide in shadows of gray and in the corners of the mind. What yesterday seemed like an obscure and uncertain issue with little chance of becoming important has today grown into a major Credibility issue. Experience will help you spot the issues sooner and predict the consequences of your response.
When I was younger, I thought Credibility was just the right thing to do because we are officers of the court sworn to conduct ourselves uprightly and according to law. But now, I realize that’s Honesty. Credibility is different. Credibility is Honesty plus Zeal. It is the exclamation point behind Clarity. It is the moment of believability. You cannot stand before a jury in closing argument unless your Credibility is intact. If the jury can’t believe in you, they will not believe in what you are saying.
Conviction – “a firmly held belief or opinion; the quality of showing that one is firmly convinced of what one believes or says.” Synonyms include words like “certitude,” “assurance,” and “confidence.”
Ah, Conviction. The most often misunderstood and abused of the triumvirate. She is elusive and cannot be faked. She is grounded in truth but has an element of theatre. As with other things in life, timing is everything. She is like a high note, to be played in perfect tune but sparingly.
What is Conviction? It is the passionate expression of a belief, but never before your jury is ready to receive it. It can sometimes be a shout of anger, but it is often more effectively expressed as a rhetorical question spoken hardly louder than a whisper. Often, Conviction is the question not asked but which is obvious. Sometimes, it is simply the monotone recitation of the chronological facts of a horrible tragedy expressed through a witness or during an opening statement, punctuated by a pause, and then this question: “And how old was Amy that day?” “She was 14 years old.”
Most importantly, Conviction is a personal moment. It is the moment when you bring your inner soul to the surface and mold it for your client’s purposes. It’s where your favorite song or poem meets the evidence. It’s where all of your hard work reaches a fulcrum. And it’s the maturity of knowing when the food has been fully cooked without the need to glance at the thermometer.
After twenty-seven years, I have come to realize that the practice of law is like a steam engine gaining momentum and power downhill, to the point that it surpasses the control of its conductor. Musician Anna Nalik unknowingly captured the sentiment when she wrote:
‘Cause you can’t jump the track, we’re like cars n a cable,
And life’s like an hourglass, glued to the table.
No one can find the rewind button, girl,
So cradle your head in your hands,
And breathe… just breathe.’
Years from now, I hope one of you takes what
Mr. Boies handed me in 2007 and passes it along to a younger lawyer. Describe
the “Three C’s” differently and in your own way—but remember to just breathe and
enjoy along the way, knowing the hourglass is glued to the table.
 Google dictionary: https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=clarity&spf=1497487051174.
 Google Dictionary: https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=credibility&spf=1497487051176.
 Google Dictionary: https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=conviction&spf=1497487051178.
 Anna Nalick, Breathe (2 AM), (Columbia 2004).