Crediblity-if people don’t believe you, you can’t win. When you make promises, keep them and when you set expectations, meet them. And when you can’t — own it.
The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather Hansen.
Heather Hansen has consistently been named a Pennsylvania Super Lawyer and one of the Top 50 Female lawyers in the state. Now she teaches leaders how to advocate for themselves and their teams using the tools of a trial attorney. She’s the author of The Elegant Warrior, Advocate to Win and the host of The Elegant Warrior podcast. She’s appeared on CNN, Fox News Channel, NBC and has anchored for the Law and Crime Network.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?
I wanted to be many things but primarily a journalist and then a psychologist. I received my psychology degree, which has been enormously helpful in my career. During the summer between junior and senior year I worked at a medical malpractice law firm and I realized that if I were a trial attorney I could combine all of my strengths and interests in one career. I started working at that firm when I was in law school and I’m still there.
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
My practice has always been defending healthcare providers in medical malpractice cases. However, I’ve recently begun my own consulting and training business where I share how attorneys can take advocacy use the tools they use in the courtroom and take them outside the courtroom to advocate for their business, their teams, their ideas and themselves.
You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?
My success is due to my ability to advocate for myself outside of the courtroom. I’ve used my 5 Cs of an Advocate to do just that. They are Choice, Compassion, Creativity, Curiosity and Credibility. The three that have most contributed to my success are
1-Choice. As a trial attorney, you must make some difficult choices. How far will you go to win? Do we have to take a witnesses’ dignity while we take their story?
We call the stories we tell about trials “war stories” and the rooms where we prepare “war rooms” for a reason. Trial feels like war, but choosing to remain true to what I call my “elegance” meant that I could always look at myself in the mirror and my opponents in the eye.
2-Curiosity. In the courtroom, we don’t win by arguing. We win by asking questions. Questions are magic. Outside of the courtroom, I’ve always worked to be as curious as possible. I want to ask more than I tell, and listen more than I speak. My favorite question is one that I heard when I was an anchor at the Law and Crime network. We were covering the Larry Nassar hearing, and at the beginning only a few women intended to come forward and tell their stories. By the end of the week, over 100 women spoke publicly. I attributed their willingness to come forward to Judge Rosemarie Aquilina and the one question she asked the women. She didn’t say “what happened to you?” or “What do I need to know?” She said “Tell me what you want me to know.” That question gave the women their power.
Now I use that question with clients, friends and family. I learn so much more than if I asked “what happened?’ or “why are we here”. It’s magic.
3-Credibility. In the courtroom, if they don’t believe me I can’t win. The same is true in all aspects of life. Every time I’ve had to advocate for a promotion, a boundary, a resource or a raise, I had to build credibility first. And it always started with me. People often ask me “what do you do if you know your client made a mistake?” I tell them I have to find a story I can believe. You can’t prove it until you believe it. And that means you have to believe in yourself and your value before you can prove it to anyone else.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe that luck is when preparation meets opportunity and I’ve had tons of it. I was lucky to be able to try my first case less than a year after passing the bar. I was lucky to have someone ask me if I ever wanted to do legal analysis for television. But I prepared and capitalized on those moments of luck to make them into the successes they became.
Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?
Not at all. I loved Villanova Law School, but where I went to school and how well (or not well) I did in school didn’t matter in my career. Once I passed the bar all that mattered was whether I knew how to advocate for my clients. My advocacy spoke for me far louder than my alma mater could.
Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back In time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?
No. I love where I am and I know that everything that I’ve done has gotten me here. If anything I’d tell her to have a little more fun with her challenges, and tell her that the more fun she has the better she’ll do.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
Being a trial attorney is one of the hardest jobs in the world. I’ve heard it compared to doing surgery, except there’s another surgeon across the table from you trying to kill your patient. I’ve seen lawyers have heart attacks in the courtroom and I’ve ended up in the ER myself from the stress. But the passion I had for serving my clients, and the thrill of watching them advocate for themselves with the tools I’d taught them made it all worthwhile. I also had to recognize when I’d had enough and that’s why I’ve started my current practice where I train and advise female leaders and those who employ them so they can become their own best advocates.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
My second book, Advocate to Win, came out in May and I’m still doing a lot of keynotes to support that book. I’ve also been asked to create entire curriculum around the 5 core competencies of an advocate. Teaching people how to use the tools of a trial attorney to advocate for themselves outside the courtroom is my life’s work and it is incredibly exciting to me.
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
I’ve only just begun this new career of advising, training, and coaching. I want to grow this business to serve as many people as possible and employ other attorneys who want to share these tools with the public.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
I had a case with multiple defendants, and an opposing attorney who was very invested in winning. One day, at the end of court, we had all begun to pack up our things, put away our binders, and head home for a few hours of sleep. My trials are document heavy, as they involve huge amounts of med- ical records and medical literature. Exhibits are everywhere, and the attorneys’ notebooks are often scattered among their boxes, marked with their names and their firms’ names. I left the courtroom, but quickly turned around and came back to grab my umbrella. There, I saw the opposing attorney rooting through the boxes on my side of the room. When I cleared my throat, he jumped and tried to pretend he was looking for a pen. He wasn’t. He was looking for an advantage, and he may have found one in that box. When we all shook hands at the end of the trial, he was unable to meet my eye. I’d lost respect for him, but even more tragically, he’d lost respect for himself.
I choose not to practice that way and not to live that way. I always want to be proud to make eye contact, whether it be with counsel, my client, or myself in the mirror.
Many attorneys opt to live their lives in doubt. I know one attorney who has his associate pack up every one of his boxes every day, in every trial. Even in cases where the other attor- neys don’t give him any reason to be suspicious, he wheels out boxes and boxes of exhibits every afternoon and wheels them back in every morning. I choose not to live that way either. I’ve come up with a compromise that works for me. At the end of each day, I pack up my boxes and put them in a pile. Then I change out of my high heels and into my sneakers, placing the high heels on the very top of the closed boxes. My version of elegance means protecting my work, but not to the point of paranoia. It means leaving the courtroom with my stilettos as a sentry. For me, elegance is walking home in my sneakers, and sometimes even singing.
Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?
My law office has gone hybrid, but I’ve always been in and out of the office with depositions and court appearances. I do think that there is a lot lost by not meeting in person. Chance interactions in the coffee kitchen lead to innovation and insight. And the ability to read somoene’s body language and even sense them close to you makes for better relationships. I think we’ll have to work hard to find ways to make up for the lack of interaction to ensure we’re still getting the opportunity to connect in these ways.
How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?
I think we still don’t really know how COVID will impact juries and jury trials. I do believe it’s important for jury’s to see witnesses and parties’ faces, and to feel safe as they serve. We will have to work together to make things as easy for jurors as possible or we will lose the diversity and breadth of jurors that we count on for the system to work.
We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?
Networking will always be an important part of every business. IT has changed and become more virtual, but we need to change with it.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
My practice has never included social media as part of the marketing plan.
Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.
1-Choice — you must choose the kind of lawyer you want to be and how you want to handle your clients and your colleagues. Know that you’re choosing, and make that choice intentional.
2-Compassion. Never take an adversary’s dignity, even if you must take their story.
3-Creativity-people often think the law is just logic and precedent. But the more creativie you allow yourself to be, the more successful you will be-and the more fun you’ll have.
4-Curiosity — always embrace a beginner’s mind. Questions are magic — ask them, and then be willing to listen to the answers.
5-Crediblity-if people don’t believe you, you can’t win. When you make promises, keep them and when you set expectations, meet them. And when you can’t — own it.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!