Barking up the Right Tree
We all must exercise caution lest a
casually tossed line become an aphorism or an epitaph. Supreme Court Associate
Justice Lewis Powell became dangerously close to being remembered for defining
pornography when he noted that "I may not be able to define it, but
I know it when I see it". 'Success' in the practice of law is another
of those things that is hard to define but that hold out the promise that
we will know it when we achieve it.
Success as an Individual within the Legal Profession
There are two formats for the definition
of personal success: intellectual and emotional. For a career in the law
to be satisfying, both must be achieved. In order to work toward achieving
both, both must be understood.
Intellectual success is easier to understand
but of lesser importance in personal satisfaction.
Some markers of intellectually defined
- It is defined by others. For example, in junior high, it was
'good grades'. Due to our experience, we only knew grades defined success
because significant adults, such as our parents, said so.
- It is judged by others. With academic grades as a standard,
we all remember "the curve". The curve was a way of analyzing
our academic performance compared to our classmates. 'Good grades' is a
relative term; our success at achieving grades was good or not so good
by comparison to others.
- Others think they can get a chunk of ours. After our school
days are over, money and / or power becomes one of the markers of intellectually
defined success. The desire of others to acquire for themselves what we
have achieved marks our success.
These intellectual markers are societal
in nature and are external to us as individuals.
On the surface, the Law as a social
institution is primarily intellectual. That's why exercises such as 'deductive
reasoning' and other exercises to develop the intellect eat up so many
law school tuition dollars. The point, before this discussion gets too
theoretical, is that law is reason and intellect. Therein
lies the trap for those who think that success in the legal profession
lies only in reason and the intellect. Lawyers are people and as such,
reason and intellect aren't all they are cracked up to be in defining 'success'.
This is because lawyers are individual human beings first and only then
players on the intellectual stage of the legal system. To deny this component
of our professional life, or even to minimize it below its real importance,
is the equivalent of ignoring that plume of blue smoke coming out of your
tailpipe because your car is still moving forward.
I recall a discussion with a physician
friend as to why the music of Mozart was so satisfying, especially to people
who also found satisfaction in pursuits of the mind. We concluded that
Mozart's gift was the ability to express reason without words. Success
in our professional lives likewise has a component that goes beyond words.
That component is the emotional satisfaction of our professional success.
Some markers of emotionally defined
- The feeling that the 'parts fit'. In law practice this shows
up in such ways as seeing your partners' strengths rather than their weaknesses
or in seeing a path through the obstructions that lie in your professional
future rather than the obstructions themselves.
- The desire to have those you care for share in the experience.
The most obvious sign of this marker are comments that you would or would
not want your children to follow you into the profession. Another would
be the opinions of your significant others, who aren't themselves involved
in the profession on a day to day basis of your professional life. If your
spouse remarks to his or her friends that "if it weren't for the damn
clients, partners and judges your job would be okay" is a tip off
as to the level of emotional success you bring home from the profession
of the law.
- Your escape fantasies. Even the most emotionally successful
lawyers have bad days, experience professional disasters and must sometimes
stand as uncomfortable witness to a client's or colleague's personal misfortune.
At these times we all retreat to our 'escape place' -- be it a woodworking
shop, art gallery or shopping mall. It is the frequency of these escape
fantasies coupled with feelings of regret that tells us of the emotional
success we experience in the legal profession.
These emotional markers are idiosyncratic
in nature and are internal to us as individuals.
Each of us was 'a person' before we
became lawyers and we will remain such after our law practice days are
over. We have chosen the world of reason and the intellect as the vineyard
in which we will labor. For those labors to be successful they must first
generate success on a personal level. Achieving personal success in the
practice of a profession requires that we first define and understand what
is important to us as individuals. In law practice development, that is
Each of us can have several components
to our definition of professional success. Some may primarily define success
in financial or social status terms while others may define it in the perceived
benefit our work provides to others. Sometimes these components of success
can be mutually exclusive, such as when clients need more services than
they can afford. It is not the conflict between components that degrades
our professional success, but the failure to recognize and deal with the
Success as an Group within the Legal
Practicing law in a group does not eliminate
nor lessens the primacy of emotional satisfaction in determining professional
success. It is not necessary that each and every stakeholder have the same
personal vision of success. However, the structure of the firm must recognize
the necessity of a basic alignment between the visions of the various stakeholders.
It matters less what the stakeholders' visions are than the fact that they
While your firm may have a 'vision statement'
there is no such thing as 'collective vision'. Vision is always unique
to the individual. Because the vision that defines emotional success is
hierarchical ranking within each individual, different visions always have
an element of mutual exclusion to them. Where the visions of the individual
stakeholders vary one from the other, the structure and form of the law
firm must consider and reconcile differences in stakeholder vision. A principle
function of practice development is the recognition of individual differences
and their incorporation into the management of the firm.
To use the planning process to achieve
greater success in the practice of law, we must make sure that our day
to day professional activities align with both our emotional and intellectual
definitions of success. Or, as my Dad used to say, "Make sure you're
not barking up the wrong tree". If the cat you're after isn't up the
tree you're at, then barking longer, louder or more aggressively will not
help. Likewise, enhancing your internal operations with new administrative
programs will only more efficiently coordinate the useless barking. Enhancing
your visibility to the world outside your firm with new marketing programs
will only focus the attention of others to the fact that you're barking
up the wrong tree.
Before you can achieve greater success
in the practice of law, you must understand what success means for to you.
- If you are already emotionally successful, it may just mean more money
(or money's doppelganger, time). That's easy.
- If your emotional success markers tell you that the issues are deeper
than hours worked to maintain the desired checkbook balance, you, either
individually or collectively as a firm, need to take a step back and examine
your success as you define it intellectually and experience it emotionally.
Taking a step back is an important part of practice development for many
if not most practitioners, even those to whom Bentley directs its Wall
Street Journal ads.
At AMI we're consultants and coaches
to members of the legal profession, not counselors. However, our experience
tells us that enhancing success starts with the personal vision of the
lawyers and the collective vision of the law firm. No one can run more
swiftly until they remove the shackles and clearly focus on the prize.
Please call, mail, or e-mail
with your comments or for more information.
Advocates Management, Inc.
1332 South 26th Street
Manitowoc, WI 54220
Voice: (877) ADVOCATES (toll free)
Fax: (920) 684-4414
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