Great Lawyers Steal (and so should you!)

In his book, Decoding Greatness: How the Best in the World Reverse Engineer Success author Ron Friedman describes how Barack Obama used modeling to launch his career. It's an amazing story and I want to share it with you:

Less than a decade before seemingly coming out of nowhere to capture the United States presidency in 2008, Barack Obama was immersed in an uphill political battle in Chicago, doing everything he could to persuade voters to elect him to Congress. There was just one problem: he was a dreadful speaker. As a former law professor, he was accustomed to lecturing audiences, not engaging them, and had an off-putting habit of incorporating complex, academic ideas that sailed over voters’ heads. His speeches left them feeling cold. Obama’s campaign staff begged him to abandon the professorial jargon and ramp up the emotion. But Obama was obstinate, leading his consultant Ron Davis to snap, “Motherfucker, you ain’t goin’ anywhere. You ain’t gonna get elected dogcatcher. You’re full of yourself. You have to let the air out.” The pleas fell on deaf ears. Obama went on to get trounced that November, losing by an embarrassing margin of more than two to one. The race left him broke, marginalized, and rudderless. For a time, he considered leaving politics. Then an adviser suggested that he spend some time in Chicago’s churches, paying close attention to the way preachers get their message across and inspire their audience. By the time Obama declared his candidacy for the US Senate just a few years later, his speaking style was transformed. Instead of communicating in abstractions, he was now telling stories, quoting the Bible, and using repetition to drive home his points. But it was more than just his words; it was also the way he was delivering them. Obama had learned to speak loudly at some points and softly at others, to modulate his tone and subtly convey emotion, to emphasize important arguments with a calm, deliberate pause. By adapting techniques commonly used in churches and importing them into the political arena, Obama was able to evolve his speaking style and establish himself as a unique political force.

While you likely don’t aspire to be president, the fact that you are reading this post suggests your desire to professionally excel. Take a page out of President Obama’s playbook–find appropriate role models to help you get there.

Advocacy Models

Search for an advocacy role model to emulate. If, for example, you are more cerebral and you are fundamentally introverted (like me), you don’t want to model a flamboyant fist-pounding lion tamer of a lawyer. Rather identify someone that fits your personality. As a young lawyer I admired Gerry Spence, but his fringed jacket and folksy demeanor didn’t work for me. Later, as the O.J. trial made celebrities of the so-called dream team, I raptly watched the trial, studying the team members' advocacy styles. Later in my career, I watched interviews of plain speaking David Boies. I saw how a powerful conversational tone can be a deadly weapon of persuasion.

You are not limited to modeling celebrity lawyers of course. Find local top guns and deconstruct how they make arguments–what works and why it works. Or consider fictional role models. Atticus Finch's famous closing in To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example of how Harper Lee used Aristotle’s rhetoric to elevate Atticus’ argument on behalf of Tom Robinson.

Model Great Orators

Also like Obama, find models outside your profession. Listen to the great speeches of Churchill or Martin Luther King. Great oratory transcends, and is as effective in the pulpit or political arena as it is in the courtroom. I remember as a young lawyer watching a VHS cassette tape of JFK’s press conferences. I deconstructed his body language and effective use of wit and self-effacement to manage (if not rule) often hostile journalists. I was also inspired by Ronald Reagan's deft use of humor to disarm his opponents. Frankly, humor and wit is always more effective than bombast and snarkiness.

Today, you have abundant resources on YouTube and other platforms to watch great speakers. Dial into TED talks to find inspiration. Watch commencement speeches of people you admire. The resources are truly endless. Learn from the greats and incorporate what you learn into your own presentations.

Study Great Legal Writers

Like it or not, as lawyers, we are also writers. Most of us are insecure in that role. Most often our daily activities are more akin to gladiators in the Coliseum rather than scholars in the library. But that doesn't mean you can’t borrow the wisdom of the greats to develop exceptional skills as a legal writer. Read judicial opinions by renowned legal writers or briefs by appellate specialists. Deconstruct their language, structure and style to incorporate into your own legal writing. I keep a “Swipe file” of language or references I admire or discover during my reading. Also check out Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates by Ross Guberman for inspiration. As they say, “great artists steal…” So do great lawyers!

Read Biographies

Modeling does not just involve mimicking the greats, rather I would describe it as trying to internalize what made them great, whether in the courtroom or as human beings. In this regard, you are well advised to study the lives of great lawyers and their trials. I devour biographies of great lawyers, both from ancient and modern times, and always find inspiration: Cicero, Daniel Webster, and Clarence Darrow are some of my favorite role models. More recently, I have been nourished by examining the careers of David Boies and Louis Nizer. When you go through a challenging period, pick up a book about one the greats confronting their own challenges. It will help palliate your anxiety. All lawyers (and human beings) face challenges and it helps to see how others overcame them rather than getting dragged down the drain by them.

Emotional Role Models

The Roman Stoics suggested taking role models with you as you confront your day. Adopt this practice as a way to brace yourself for a particularly challenging day or activity. On days that I need to inspire myself to advocacy brilliance, I might use Clarence Darrow as my inspiration. I bring him (well, of course, not really) to court as co-counsel. Or if I have a day that I need to be patient with bratty lawyers, Mr. Lincoln might accompany me to inspire me to be wise and self-controlled. On days that I need to bolster my courage, U.S. Grant is my riding companion. This may sound silly, but it is a practice used by the ancient Stoics and others to adopt the traits of the greats to help guide you throughout your day.

Great Lawyers Steal

Whether it be as an advocate, orator, writer or otherwise, look to the the greats to guide you. They stood on the shoulders of the giants that came before them as well. Nobody develops in a vacuum. We all learn from others. Why not use the wisdom and skill of the greats in our profession, to help you achieve success in the practice or beyond. Steal your way to greatness. Who knows, maybe you too can be president someday!

Published January 13, 2022

About the author


Steven N.Peskind

Principal Attorney

To be successful, a lawyer must have insight into the whole human catastrophe and be able to effectively traverse the legal system. It is the intersection of these two disciplines that fascinate me. I have been a lifelong student of both human nature and the law, and have created this blog to help others following my path.


Book Reviews


Practice Hacks


Random Musings


Trial Practice

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Be the first to get notified of new posts and insider tips.

Copyright © 2019 The Successful Lawyer. All Rights Reserved.