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 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 success...

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 called 'vision'.

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 conflict.

Success as an Group within the Legal Profession

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 are aligned.

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.

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.

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