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Surviving Yourself

By Andrew Love

I was asked to write about how I have survived the law, but I can’t say I have or even will accomplish that. Instead, what you will read about here are a few observations and recommendations based on my mistakes, victories, and hard knocks. They reflect what I have come to understand: You can’t survive the practice of law unless you can survive yourself.

Get Obsessed and Stay Obsessed
In John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, Iowa Bob proclaims, “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.” John Irving, The Hotel New Hampshire 117 (Ballantine 1981). I do not read Iowa Bob’s statement literally, but no one should care more than you do about the cases you are handling or the research you are conducting. Regardless of your place in the hierarchy of your law firm, it is incumbent upon you to be the expert on the cases you are litigating or the projects you are responsible for. I’ve had more insights about my cases while driving, dreaming, and running than I’ve had while in my office. I am convinced this is because I am obsessed with my cases. I think of them all the time, but not in the albatross-around-the-neck sense and not because I fear a bad result. Instead, I am always open to the possibilities that each case presents.

Directly address with firm leaders issues you may have with the firm or your practice. It shows you care. This requires you to educate yourself beyond how these issues affect you, however. Firms don’t want complaints; they want solutions. If you are not willing to work to create solutions, don’t complain.

Communicate with your supervising attorneys on the cases you are handling for them. Do your homework first, however. One of my partners likes to tell the story of how, as a young associate, he once—and only once—made the mistake of asking his supervising attorney a question about the law. The older attorney, a cigar-smoking throwback, responded with a question: “Do you have a law license?” My partner, sensing this conversation was careening out of control, squeaked out a “Yes,” to which the grizzled attorney responded: “Good! Don’t ever ask me for an answer you can look up yourself!” Don’t ask your supervising partner questions about the law. Know the law and the facts, and get the strategy from your mentors. Besides, they don’t know as much law as you think they do, and they certainly are counting on you to know the facts.

Communicate with clients. What are your client’s expectations for any particular matter? Does your client want a trial? Does your client have similar cases across the country? Are you handling the case in a way that is consistent with the client’s national strategy? Always stay one step ahead of the client. Anticipate the client’s needs.

If You Don’t Know What to Do, Do Something
One of my college professors passed this piece of wisdom on to me. I recently found a terrific example while trying a case against a young plaintiff’s lawyer. She was not the best tactician, but her aggressive and passionate approach more than made up for her lack of experience. I’ve always admired people who will act under less than perfect conditions. Timing is almost never perfect, so why wait for events to turn one’s way when you can try to shape them?

This advice was especially helpful when I began handling nursing home cases. Rather than waiting for plaintiff’s counsel to round up former nursing home employees, when a new case would come in, I would hit the road myself in search of my witnesses. By identifying, finding, and interviewing witnesses early in the case, I learned important facts that helped me make decisions in the case. Not all of the facts were positive, but it is much better to learn of negative facts in an interview than during a deposition.

Be a Pragmatist, Not a Perfectionist
Execution, not perfection, matters most. Your job is to get things done, not get them done perfectly. A perfectly drafted petition or complaint resting on a hard drive is meaningless. Your strategies do not have to be perfect. In fact, most will change over time and some won’t work at all. No one cares if your summary judgment motion had perfect Bluebook citation if you did not make the most important argument, or if you did not prepare adequately for the hearing, either legally or logistically. While we all know that no one is perfect, many of us, especially lawyers, still hold ourselves and others to that standard. Of course, putting perfection aside does not mean that you abandon standards altogether. The New York Giants were excellent the season they defeated the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, but they were not perfect. They didn’t have to be. Neither do you.

Focus on the Client
The practice of law is not always fulfilling. Let’s face it, in a litigation practice, your job often involves the shifting of money from one party to another. Sometimes the question is whether any money will be shifted. Other times, the question is the amount of money that will assuredly be transferred. There is nothing inherently good or evil in this enterprise; it’s just that it does nothing for the production of long-term happiness, which usually comes from helping others. Whether your client is a Fortune 500 company or a local business person, you will, at some point, interact with a person. That person is depending on you for his livelihood. It is your job to make him look good to his boss. In this sense, the cases you handle are not about your gaining experience. Rather, they are about your assisting someone resolve a dispute in the way he or she wants it resolved. The experience you gain is a by-product of your service to your client. If you provide good client service, the case itself will be secondary. Clients don’t expect their lawyers to be miracle workers, but they do expect them to be responsive and aware of the clients’ goals.

George Washington allegedly said, “An army of asses led by a lion is vastly superior to an army of lions led by an ass.” Today, begin to lead like a lion. Do not wait until you are in a leadership position to begin acting like a leader. It will be too late then. In fact, you can lead even if you are the newest lawyer in your firm. It’s called leadership by example. Don’t confuse hierarchy with authority. You’d be surprised how much authority a young lawyer can exercise by being willing to out-work and out-think those with more seniority who are not giving the matter attention. Leadership, like reputation, is not a badge you earn once and retain forever. You must lead every day.

Steal from Lawyers
You know which lawyers are most respected in your office and legal community, and you at least have a sense why they are respected. Study them. Copy their habits. Learn why others hold them in high esteem and try to absorb those traits. Keep the ones that work for you. Make them your own. Discard the others. Never stop doing this.

Avoid comparing yourself with others, however. You’ll either compare yourself with those who have achieved more than you, in which case you will never win; or you’ll compare yourself with those who have achieved less than you, in which case you will always win. In either case, you do yourself a disservice. Be your own measure of success, and let others be theirs. If others want to make comparisons, let them. You’re never as good or as bad as they think you are.

Learn from Non-Lawyers
I’ve learned more about how to practice law from literature than I’ve learned from any continuing legal education seminar. The practice of law is so much more human than rules, statutes, regulations, and legal opinions. The more you know about people generally, the more you will understand what motivates people specifically.

Be Yourself
I love to read and watch commencement addresses. The best addresses usually have one thing in common: None of the speakers listened to their critics. If they had, they’d be reading or watching the commencement address, not giving it. It is easy to find someone who will tell you all the things you cannot do. In fact, try this: Tell the first person who walks by your office what you would really like to do with your life, or tell him or her about a great idea you have. That person’s response (especially in a law firm) will likely consist of one or more reasons why you cannot do what you want to do or possibly skepticism about whether your idea is worthwhile in the first place. Should you listen to that person? Only if you don’t believe in yourself or your ideas.

Of course, none of us has carte blanche to act on everything our brains tell us, and we have the sense to ignore some of the internal advice we give ourselves. One would hope, for example, that you would not listen to your brain if it told you to choke the opposing lawyer (or your own witness) during a deposition. Finally, while you can mimic the habits of others, mimicking their personalities will get you nowhere. Just be yourself, and listen to your brain. It won’t steer you wrong.

Keywords: litigation, tips, career development

Andrew Love practices with Wright Brown & Close, LLP, in Houston, Texas.

This article was adapted from a longer one that was published in the Fall 2009 issue of Litigation.


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