Why It Takes More Than Talent

I have previously written about how I became a lawyer. What I failed to include were the bumps in the road along the way.

I was reminded of those bumps when recently reading a column in The Wall Street Journal by Aaron Kuriloff. The writer recalled his own collegiate sailing career, inspired by a 43 year old who was competing for the 2016 Brazilian Olympic sailing team. He wondered if he could have somehow made the U.S. sailing team. On considering this, the writer concluded that while talent matters, persistence also matters. “In fact, it is often the factor that decides which of the most talented make the Olympic team, and which of them win medals.”

This reminded me of my own decision to become a lawyer. I first had to take the LSAT; in fact, I took it twice. My scores were not very good; I was disappointed and wondered if was making the right career decision. I sought the counsel of a Furman University political science professor, also a lawyer. He cited my excellent academic record at Furman and told me that if I really wanted to be a lawyer, that I could do it, that there was a law school out there to which I could be admitted. He encouraged me to keep at it and I did. I was ultimately accepted by three of the four law schools to which I applied, and I graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law. No, I did not get to attend my first choice law school. But I became a lawyer and continue to practice 29 years later at the same law firm I started with in 1987.

Persistence matters.

12 Steps Toward Fulfillment in the Practice of Law (Step 2)

Last week, we began with Judge Carl Horn’s Step 1, Face the Facts. Today, we look at Step 2 – Establish Clear Priorities.

Whether single or married, and, if married with children, whether one or two of the parents work outside the home, there is a widespread sense today that there is never enough time. That is precisely why Judge Horn says that it is crucial to establish clear priorities. As someone once quipped, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” We must know at least where we want to go with our professional and personal lives and prioritize our time accordingly.

To avoid regret later in life, we must realize now that the time we spend with our children will be remembered as precious and as far more valuable than money or any temporary career achievement we may have to forego. Judge Horn suggests making time with your family a top priority and to be sure your daily and weekly schedules reflect it. This does not mean that lawyers, with or without children, should not be prepared to work very hard. It simply means that if we aim to live balanced lives, lines must be drawn beyond which we are not willing to go, at least not on a regular basis.

Judge Horn reminds us that making enough money should be a priority. However, the proper priority in a balanced life, that should be given to making enough money, must not become a license for workaholism or what one commentator called a “money-centered world view.” Money is a means to an end. If balance and happiness are among our life goals, we must be vigilant not to allow money to become an end in itself.

We must learn that if we are to realize professional fulfillment, we must establish and unequivocally live by clear priorities.

Step 2 – Establish Clear Priorities.

Join us next week for Step 3 – Develop and Practice Good Time Management.

12 Steps Toward Fulfillment in the Practice of Law (Step 1)

We know lawyers are especially vulnerable to depression and substance abuse disorders. So how do lawyers avoid those problems and achieve a balanced life and fulfillment in the practice of law? In 2003, the ABA published a book, Lawyer Life – Finding a Life and a Higher Calling in the Practice of Law, written by the Honorable Carl Horn, III, a former U. S. Magistrate Judge in North Carolina, now in private practice in Charlotte, North Carolina. After examining the profession and its various problems, Judge Horn set forth “12 Steps Toward Fulfillment in the Practice of Law,” which is based on choices that an individual lawyer can make to enhance professional fulfillment. For the next twelve weeks, we will discuss each step in the 12 Steps offered by Judge Horn.

Step 1 – Face the Facts

Every 12 Step program begins with an exhortation to those in the targeted group to acknowledge their need. In the current context, perhaps one would say, “I’m a lawyer who went to law school, or began practice with high ideals, intentions to live a balanced life, and all that, but now …” By honestly and openly asking the right questions, we increase our chances, or take the first step, toward a balanced, fulfilling professional life. Are we emotionally healthy? Are we satisfied with the key relationships in our lives? When we look back on these years, will we be pleased with our priorities as evidenced by how we actually spent our time, or will we regret not having spent more time with our family and close friends? In short, do we feel good about where we are professionally and personally, and where our life appears to be going?

Let honesty be the rule here. We must face these facts on a regular basis if our lives are to remain balanced and on course. Lawyers who do not ask these questions, who fail to engage in periodic introspection, are more likely to experience what has been described as “the lingering feeling of emptiness despite material success.”

Step 1 – Face the facts.

Join us next week for Step 2 – Establish Clear Priorities.

The Perfect Is The Enemy Of The Good

The phrase “The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good” can be traced back to one of Voltaire’s 18th century poems. Shakespeare expressed similar sentiments: “Were it not sinful then, striving to mend, to mar the subject that before was well?”

Doing a good job becomes almost impossible when we strive to do it perfectly. In many cases, we do not begin the project, much less finish it, since we know it cannot be done perfectly. How many times have we been afflicted with “paralysis by analysis,” pursuing perfection?

Perfectionism can lead to negative consequences. Research suggests that those who suffer from intense perfectionism are at higher risk for suicide. They are driven by an intense need to avoid failure. To these people, nothing seems quite good enough, and they are unable to derive satisfaction from what ordinarily might be considered even superior performance (Dr. Sidney J. Blatt, “The Destructiveness of Perfectionism:  Implications for the Treatment of Depression,” American Psychologist, Volume 49, Number 12 (1997)).

In Stress Management for Lawyers, Dr. Amiram Elwork notes that perfectionism is rewarded in both law school and the practice of law. However, it can lead to negative thinking: “If I don’t do it perfectly, I’m no good; it’s no use; I should just give up,” or “I have to do it perfectly and I can’t quit until it’s perfect.” This type of thinking can lead to isolation and depression.

In his book Lawyer Life: Balancing Life and a Career in Law (American Bar Association, 2003), Judge Carl Horn said that striving for professional excellence is a good and worthy goal.  In sharp and important contrast, trying to achieve perfection is not.  In his book, Letters to a Young Lawyer, In his book, Letters To A Young Lawyer,  Alan Dershowitz wrote a chapter titled, “The Perfect is the Enemy of the Excellent.” He observed that “every book, painting, symphony or speech could be improved.  The search for perfection is illusory and has no end.”

As Judge Horn advises, we would do well to strive for professional excellence but be wary of any tendency we may have toward perfectionism.

Real Lawyers Don’t Cry

My parents, Grady and Mary Mauney, were good friends and neighbors of the local Chevrolet dealer, Bill Turner, and his wife, Trilby. They had two kids about my age, and then later had another child, TK. At a young age, TK developed meningitis and was hospitalized at Bowman Gray Hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. TK was eventually placed on a ventilator, her prognosis poor. I rode with my parents from Forest City, North Carolina to see Bill and Trilby at the hospital. I still remember the steadfast strength shown by Bill Turner while facing this personal tragedy. Trilby demonstrated her own strength through her faith in God.

We listened as Bill described how the doctors had just reported the results of an EEG, which showed no brain activity. They were faced with a gut wrenching decision. I watched as my Dad listened, saying little, but offering his support through his presence there. His eyes welled up with tears. I had never seen my Dad cry. He probably had, especially when his brother Charles died a few years earlier. My Dad was a real man, lover of sports, a father of three, husband to my Mom. He was a professional, a dentist, who took pride in his work and his family. But I had never seen him cry. Until he sat next to Bill Turner and learned of TK’s likely fate. She died shortly after our visit.

As lawyers, we are most often problem solvers, working through difficult situations for our clients, perhaps resolving some conflict. We are trained to dispassionately scrutinize the facts and analytically apply the law to those facts. In doing so, lawyers often neglect their internal feelings, suppressing their innermost emotions and thoughts in favor of cold, analytical reasoning. The result is that lawyers often struggle with their own mental health, not paying enough attention to that side of ourselves. We need to be reminded of the importance of our own emotional well-being, taking the necessary steps to be both physically and emotionally healthy.

It was appropriate for my Dad to cry that day, as he visited with Bill and Trilby Turner. It was an emotionally healthy thing for him to do. It showed that he understood the depth of their suffering.  As professionals, we should learn that lesson and let ourselves fully experience our emotions under appropriate circumstances.

How I Became A Lawyer

I recently wrote on Abnormal Use about the importance of storytelling for lawyers when marketing themselves and their law practices. As I said then, I was inspired to work on some of my own stories. This is the result of that initial effort.

When I first went to Furman University as a student in the Fall of 1980, I wanted to be a doctor. My Dad was a dentist, and I knew that was not for me. But I did like the life sciences, including biology and anatomy. So, I filled my first year with Botany, Zoology, and Calculus, laying the groundwork for my pre-med curriculum. The next fall, when it was time to register for classes, I found myself in line to register for Organic Chemistry, the course that separates the wheat from the chaff. I hesitated. I began questioning why I wanted to be a doctor and whether I had truly considered any other path. I walked away from that registration line that day and spent the next year wandering in the wilderness.

During that year, I spent time with the Furman chaplain, Dr. Jim Pitts, exploring whether I was being called into ministry as my vocation. I even spent a semester as a volunteer hospital chaplain at Easley Baptist Hospital. It readily became apparent that was not the path for me, but I did get the chance to preach on Youth Sunday at my home church of First Baptist in Forest City, North Carolina. My uncle, Dr. John Johns, then President of Furman, was in the congregation that day. A friend recently reminded me of my uncle’s comments after hearing my sermon: “You would make a fine lawyer,” apparently referring to my ability to communicate effectively. Not long after that, I made an appointment with him to discuss it further. He encouraged me to seriously consider the law as my chosen profession.

Later, I sat down with one of my Dad’s lawyer friends, Tolliver Davis, who was the U.S. Magistrate for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina. He patiently answered my questions about the law. After this due diligence, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. I was probably not sure why, or even what type of law in which I was interested. What I did know was that my Dad respected Tolliver Davis as a man of integrity. That was the beginning point, and how I became a lawyer.

I changed my major to Political Science; I graduated from Furman in 1984 and the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1987. I have been practicing with the law firm of Gallivan White, & Boyd, P.A. in Greenville, South Carolina ever since.

The practice of law has changed dramatically over the last 29 years. Law firm economics and the business of law have become increasingly difficult, more demanding. Yet, I have never regretted my decision to become a lawyer. I enjoy helping people and businesses with their problems, whatever they may be. Now that I think about it, not only do you know how I became a lawyer, you now know why as well.

Success Is Found On The Far Side Of Failure

My wife recently sent me a video clip of author J.K. Rowling talking about the benefits of failure. Her marriage had failed, she was jobless and a single parent. Rowling said, “I was the biggest failure I knew.” But once she stripped away the nonessentials in her life and stopped pretending about who she was, she found the determination she needed. She was set free to do the one thing in her life she knew she was meant to do. Her greatest fear had been realized, yet she was still alive. By reaching rock bottom, she found the foundation upon which she rebuilt her life. Rowling said that failure is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something “unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not live at all, in which case you fail by default.” Rowling concluded by sharing the traits she learned about herself. She had a strong will, discipline and many faithful friends. And she was secure in her ability to survive.

Rowling’s words reminded me of one of my favorite quotes: “Success is found on the far side of failure.” Is that not what Rowling was trying to tell us? She found success after hitting rock bottom, learning some things about herself along the way. It was that strong will and determination that propelled her successful career. When have you failed as a lawyer and found success on the far side? I still vividly remember my first few jury trials as a young lawyer. One of our partners was always present to bail me out if needed, and more importantly, to assess my performance once the verdict was rendered. Whenever I am in court, whether arguing a motion or trying a case, I try to debrief afterward. What went well? What could I have done better? If the case is resolved short of trial, which is most often the case, did I move the case along appropriately? Did I get a good result for the client? If you are a young lawyer, insist that a more experienced lawyer go with you to your first hearing, your first deposition. Look for opportunities for other lawyers to help you learn from your mistakes. Don’t hide from them; dissect them openly. Take advantage of the feedback; learn from your failures.

Storytelling for Lawyers

We have all read about the importance of telling a good story as part of any trial strategy, whether in an opening statement or a closing argument, but what about in our own personal marketing or when promoting our law firm? Yes, you have the 60 second elevator speech that you can use, but what about a story that informs others about what you can do for your clients or what your law firm is capable of doing for its clients?

I recently read a Wall Street Journal article by Susan Credle, global chief creative officer for FCB, one of the largest advertising agency networks. In the article, Credle says “data and technology dominate the conversations.”  There is creativity but it is often formulaic. Credle laments the absence of “bright moments when someone creates a piece of work that captures our imaginations and our hearts.” Credle’s theory is that the advertising industry has “forgotten that first and foremost we need to be storytellers.” She says the best in their industry are “relentless storytellers” whose brands are purpose-driven and whose stories are authentic.  The story is told and retold, over and over again, in “new, surprising and creative ways.” As Credle notes, this storytelling is an investment, and with each new investment, “the brand becomes more valuable.”

Credle encourages others to seize the opportunity, even the responsibility, “to create famous, lasting brand stories.” She asks if we are dreaming big enough, if we are walking away from what could be some legendary stories. Credle concludes “It is about a relentless and lasting commitment to a brand’s story, and the elation of waking up every day with an opportunity to help write the next chapter.”

Credle’s premise is that our stories create the most valuable brands. Have you thought about what stories you can tell? Can you write a story about your practice that is memorable and effective? I have been inspired by Susan Credle’s emphasis on storytelling. So, I am going to work on some of my stories. I think I will start with the story of how I decided to become a lawyer.

Until next time . . . .

The Power Of Your Voice

I recently received a phone call from an old friend, long since retired. He just wanted to catch up on things. He did not send me a letter through the mail. He did not send me an email over the Internet or a text. It was a real live phone call. It was so good to hear his voice. I cannot tell you how much that call meant to me.

Perhaps we should remember the power of our voice. The next time you need to communicate with a client, pick up the phone! It makes a difference. The next time you need to address a difficult issue with opposing counsel, don’t start off by sending them an email. Use your voice! My friend set an example for us. Do you have someone who needs to hear your voice? What about the next time you need to deal with a sensitive issue in your law office? It is so easy and convenient to fire off an email.  Instead, get out of your chair and walk down the hall to do it in person. Not only are you using your voice, but you have added the power of your presence.

Remember the power of your voice.

The Good Lawyer

I have often heard clients say “We do not hire law firms; we hire lawyers!”  So, who do they hire?  They tend to hire someone they like and trust, and who knows their business like the back of their hand.  But beyond that, what makes a “good lawyer?”

I recently attended a meeting with an insurer with whom our firm has a relationship.   A number of areas were covered, including the relationship between the insurer, outside counsel and insureds; the importance of compliance with litigation guidelines; the company’s claims handling philosophy; and the importance of timely communication with both the insurer and insured. Then, we heard from a claims officer who had recently read some wisdom on what makes a “good lawyer.”  She shared the article with us; it provided some useful reminders (although the original author and publication are unknown). If you know who first penned these words, let us know!

The Good Lawyer

  1. Is always honest and truthful.
  2. Listens to the client.
  3. Knows who the client is, remembers who the client is, only represents the client, and does not surprise the client.
  4. Communicates with the client.
  5. Is the messenger, not the message.
  6. Is willing to tell the client or prospective client that the law sometimes does not offer a remedy to every particular problem.
  7. Explains everything to the client in terms that the client can understand.
  8. Has a positive attitude, but does not promise success.
  9. Always honors the attorney-client privilege.
  10. Is always alert for potential conflicts of interest and investigates and resolves all potential conflicts before undertaking any representation.
  11. Becomes knowledgeable about the applicable law and facts with regard to the client’s case.
  12. Maintains their objectivity about their client’s case.
  13. Never underestimates an opponent and never embarrasses anyone.
  14. Treats everyone with the respect and dignity that the lawyer expects to be treated.
  15. Strives for excellence. Excellence with humility in the representation of the client.
  16. Is diligent, persistent and relentless in the pursuit of representing their client.
  17. Adheres to the highest professional and ethical standards.
  18. Is proud of being a good lawyer and how they serve each of their clients.

In response, please share your own thoughts on what makes a good lawyer.