Editor’s note: second in a series.
Part One of this series discussed five of the attributes that are embodied by many winning lawyers, which are their propensity to be: 1) goal setters, 2) self-motivated, 3) strategic, 4) risk takers and 5) well networked. This month, the final five characteristics will be analyzed.
Winners Are Well Prepared
“It’s not the will to win, but the will to prepare to win that makes the difference.”
— Bear Bryant
It is the hallmark of a good lawyer to be prepared. Most lawyers learned early that their native intellect, when combined with preparation, positioned them well for success, whether that was in school or in their professional life. The objective of being ready is not a hard sell, as it is something that is under their control and is a “check the box” type of endeavor that is inherently attractive to lawyers. There are two facets of preparation, though, that separate great lawyers from those who are very good.
The first such aspect is the tendency to take an extra step (or two) with respect to preparation, especially in high leverage situations. For example, consider the lawyer who will be attending a conference or other function in which opportunities exist to fraternize with other lawyers or executives who may be good business sources, links to job opportunities, or good extensions to their professional network.
A good lawyer may review the list of expected attendees and give some thought as to the persons he hopes to meet. A very good lawyer may go a step further to review the bios of those persons and even peruse a few recent news stories about their companies or firms. A great lawyer will take those steps, plus will be ready to offer help to those other persons if they should meet, which may take the form of a follow-up article (that he already found through his preparation) or other piece of information that also starts to build a relationship.
The second trait is to never become complacent about preparation, even after one progresses in his career. Human nature can lead accomplished lawyers to believe that all they have to do is show up, or only do a modicum of preparatory work, as others may know them at a later stage of their career. This is a risky gambit, as competition is fierce (and will include others who actually did prepare) and each year that goes by introduces another wave of younger persons into the mix — who may be future clients or contacts — who actually know very little about their past accomplishments and will be unimpressed by a lack of familiarity with them.
Winners Embrace Change
“Winners must learn to relish change with the same enthusiasm and energy that we have resisted in the past.”
— Thomas J. Peters
Lawyers, like other professionals, cherish routine and frequently put systems into place that are followed quite closely. This is laudable, as habitual activities, as long as they are grounded on sound practices, make one much more efficient and increase the odds of success. The challenge for some is that when the winds of change come blowing in — as they inevitably will do throughout one’s career — they fight the change and cling to their tried and true routines, thoughts and practices, even if they become outdated.
I often encounter this resistance in the recruiting context. Some lawyers, who intellectually realize that changing firms or companies makes perfect sense and would boost their career and fortunes (in quite a few ways), push back because they fear making a change and vainly hope that the change that has impacted them will somehow go away and revert things back to the “normal” they have enjoyed. Similarly, practice areas may begin to change and the observant lawyer may realize that he should adapt, but forgoes putting in the time to alter his behavior or learn a new topic; rather, he clings to the hope that the change won’t be permanent.
Winners accept that change is inevitable, are invigorated by the new challenge, and even see the shifting landscape as another opportunity in which they can succeed. The initial resistance which all of us feel, as it is part of the human condition, is quickly quashed by them as they recall how they successfully dealt with other changes earlier in their careers. Quite simply, they realize that since they have done it numerous times before, they somehow will figure it out this time, too.
Letting go of that practice or habit, once it is clear that change is eviscerating it, is the crucial step here, as you don’t want to be left behind. (For example, who wants to tout his reputation today as the last standing FIRREA expert?) It was aptly noted that: “If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold onto.” ( Tao Te Ching ).
Winners Take Action
“The first man gets the oyster, the second man gets the shell.”
— Andrew Carnegie
Inertia can grip anyone, in their personal or professional lives. Indolence though, seems to envelop lawyers in a vise-like clench that sucks the will to take action out of them at times. Perhaps this stems from being in a profession that is populated by very bright people who are trained to look for problems and assume the worst may happen. Almost any new idea or suggested course of action can be picked apart by the naysayers, as they can find potentially negative ramifications in anything. This can have a stifling effect on the organization and individual lawyers who can become comfortable in talking themselves out of doing anything that has potentially negative consequences.
Who among us has not talked to the lawyer who bemoans that someone in another firm or company is not as bright as he, or as good a lawyer (just insert your favorite comparative), but gets better press than he, makes more money, is in a better organization, etc.? Similarly, on an institutional level, some firms are of the belief that they are as good or better than other firms, even though those other firms have more sterling reputations, are more profitable, have glossier client lists, etc. Where is the disconnect here? In most cases, it was the other lawyer, firm, or company that overcame inertia, took action (despite the risks), and simply made it happen, while the wistful lawyer or firm stood still.
Winning lawyers will assess a situation, prepare for the undertaking, and will not be afraid to pull the trigger to take action when warranted. Waiting for that perfect moment to arrive before acting, much like many of us did in our youth, while hoping for that magical song to play before we asked someone to dance, may never happen, or, if it does, will be quickly seized upon by someone who does not suffer from timidity. As Mark Twain aptly said: “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Winners Are Resilient
“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Even the most gifted among us has failed many times in his life and will certainly do so again — especially if one follows some of the principles outlined in this series, especially in taking risks! The magnitude of those failures can be greater for those who play at the highest level, especially in comparison to those who tend to play it safe. During my in-house career, I learned to probe any time someone told me that he had never lost a case. While this may have been true, it became apparent that most of those lawyers had not tried many cases and quite often positioned tricky cases for settlement, even when clients may have been willing to try them, rather than have a defeat mar their perfect record. Litigators who try a lot of cases will lose one now and then, no matter how skilled they are.
Two tendencies have revealed themselves among the most successful lawyers I know in this context. The first is their ability to bounce back, even if the setback is a big one. Although it may take some time to shake off the impact, they inevitably will recall how they overcame what may have seemed like a crushing defeat earlier in their career and will draw on that experience to place the present loss in perspective. Most such lawyers are unfailingly optimistic, which helps them greatly.
The second characteristic is that winners view failure as a learning opportunity, as they will step back to carefully assess what went wrong, so that they can avoid that fate the next time a similar situation arises. As Henry Ford said, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently,” which is the template that can be used to transform the setback into a success in the future.
Winners Often Become Leaders
“The price of greatness is responsibility.”
— Winston Churchill
Although not all leaders are successful, I have yet to meet a highly successful lawyer who does not have strong leadership skills. Some of these lawyers may eschew a leadership position (such as managing partner or department head), but they invariably play an important leadership role, at least with respect to guiding the lawyers who work for and with them.
This is not to suggest that a paucity of leadership skills will prevent someone from becoming an excellent lawyer. I would be surprised if anyone does not know quite a few lawyers who fit that bill. The traits, though, that are embodied in leadership (which closely parallel the 10 attributes in this series), if lacking, often prevent a lawyer from rising to the highest level, whether that entails becoming a general counsel or managing partner, becoming one of the top rainmakers in a firm, or otherwise being a person of significant influence.
Business development is a good example, as I often see partners hit a wall at the $2 million to $3 million originations level, which is still an amount that is a significant accomplishment for anyone. The skills that it takes to vault over that wall are the ones that winners embrace, such as: 1) not being afraid to surround themselves with others who may be as good or better than they are; 2) learning to let go of the micro-managing bug; 3) infusing the lawyers on their team with responsibility and showing appreciation for their efforts; and 4) maintaining strong client relationships to ensure repeat business, but still pursuing new business sources, even if such efforts have associated risks.
As Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
I hope readers found this series to be helpful. I welcome suggestions of other traits of the most successful lawyers you know and will surely consider incorporating them if version 2.0 of this series is produced next year. Thank you. •
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvaniabased legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.