25 Lessons in 25 Years- Part V
We have reached the “Final Five”. Again, these have been in no particular order other than number 1, which is the most important lesson that I have learned in my 25 years of law practice. As I complete this list I realize that there is some overlap in certain of these lessons and some of them have more applicability on a day to day basis than others. Nevertheless, it has been a worthwhile exercise to think through my career and those lessons that have had the greatest impact on me.
- This May Surprise A Lot of You. Lawyers often have the reputation for being “slick”, sneaky, untrustworthy, manipulative, etc. People love “lawyer jokes.” Some lawyers are absolutely deserving of these labels, but the part that will surprise you is that in my experience, the vast majority of lawyers are the most ethical people I know. There are many things that lawyers are ethically prohibited from doing due to ethical rules and rules of professional conduct that are not applicable to other professions or businesses. Those lawyers who do not abide by those rules are the ones who make the headlines, but again in my experience most lawyers are ethical, trustworthy, respectful, and of strong moral character, and society as a whole might benefit from having to abide by the same ethical code that lawyers are bound to uphold.
- Just Because You Can Does Not Mean You Should. Whether it is firing off that angry e-mail (or even worse, a text), filing a particular motion or taking some other action that you could rationalize and justify, just because you may have the right to do that does not mean that you should. As noted in some of the earlier lessons, it is a round world and you may need a favor from your opponents someday. In addition, you may actually be wrong in your initial emotional reaction to whatever the situation is. With our ability now to instantly communicate, we could often regret the e-mail or other angry response that we fire off when something has upset us. A good rule of thumb is when feeling that way, write out the e-mail, letter, or text, and then set it aside and at least wait until the next day to read it again and decide if you really want to send that communication. Often times the answer will be no, or at least you will edit it significantly to tone it down. Furthermore, the nuances that we can convey in a conversation are often lost in a short written communication. Again, this is not limited to written communications, but just to the things that lawyers have the ability to do in various situations, whether it is in court, meetings, or other situations. There are many times where the lawyer could do something, but through the exercise of sound judgment realizes he should not.
- The Best Thing to Know is to Know What You Do Not Know. When you first start practicing law, there is a lot of legal knowledge that you have gained through law school. This does not mean, however, that you know anything about practicing law. Too many people think that they know it all, and want to act like they know it all. A much better course (in my experience) is to admit (to yourself first) what you do not know, and then be willing to ask questions, listen to other more experienced lawyers, research, and be willing to learn and accept the lessons that are being taught to you through the day to day experience of the practice. Through that process you become better at what you do, no matter what it is. I think this willingness to admit that I knew virtually nothing when I started has helped me tremendously through the years. This is one of those lessons I suspect cuts across all different professions and occupations.
- Professionalism Never Goes Out of Style. A lot has changed in 25 years about how we practice law on a day to day basis. One thing that has not changed, and hopefully never will, is that those lawyers who are courteous and act like true professionals are respected, admired, and ultimately are the most successful lawyers in the eyes of their peers. The lawyer whose word is his bond, who is always willing to listen, to assist, and to counsel not only clients but also other lawyers and just people in general are the lawyers who truly become the most respected members of this profession. It does not take any more effort to be a true class professional than it does to be a complete jerk, and your reputation will be your one lasting legacy, and you only have one of those. No matter how the law continues to evolve and change through technology and otherwise, there will always be room for the true professional.
- Be Yourself. To be the best lawyer you can be, you need to be yourself. You should never try to act like you think a lawyer is supposed to act; the way lawyers may be portrayed on TV or in the movies; or in a way you think your boss or clients expect you to act. One of my early mentors taught me this lesson early on and I continue to believe it was the best lesson I have been taught in my career. Here is that story:
I was in my first or second year of practice at a litigation firm. I was just staring the process of taking depositions in cases, and was inexperienced enough that the senior partners were still coming into the depositions with me to make sure I did not totally screw up everything. I had taken my first deposition with a senior partner whose personality was very similar to mine. That went fine. The second one was for a different senior partner/mentor, who has a far different style and personality than I. While he certainly is every bit as ethical and professional as any lawyer I have ever met, he is more comfortable with a more aggressive and confrontational style of representation. Knowing that, I attempted to take on that same personality in the deposition so as to impress him. It was a disaster. While it certainly did not affect any outcome in the case, and ultimately we got through the deposition, certainly I and others in the room knew that it had not gone well.
As we walked back to the office, my mentor called me into his office and asked me to shut the door. It was at that point that he taught me this lesson: “You have to be yourself. You went in there today trying to be me, and you are not me. I can be a real pr**k sometimes. I kind of enjoy being a pr**k; I am pretty good at being a pr**k; and it is the way I handle these things. You are too nice to be a pr**k, so don’t try to be one. Be yourself, lawyer the way you lawyer, and you will be far better at being a lawyer that way than trying to do it the way I do it.” Instantly I felt relief that he had shared that lesson with me and allowed me to do things “my way” as opposed to trying to do them the way I thought he wanted me to do them.
Again, this undoubtedly is one of those lessons that cuts across all walks of life, and we all have to be true to our nature because if we try to behave in a way that is inconsistent with who we really are, ultimately we will fail. That lesson has stuck with me throughout my career and is one that I have shared with many other lawyers and other professionals, and I have never heard anyone disagree with it. I will be forever grateful to that mentor for teaching me that lesson early on.
So there they are: my “Top 25” if you will. I again appreciate everyone reading these lessons and sharing your thoughts back with me. As always, feel free to comment to this and add your own thoughts on lessons that you have learned in your own careers.