One thing about human behavior that has always fascinated me is how quickly ideas, problems, successes and failures disappear from our recent memory. We are constantly focused on the immediate and then the future — what is happening today and what we hope will happen tomorrow. Often, we forget about what happened last week, last month or last year that led us to where and who we presently are, and where and who we will be in the future.
That being said, welcome to “Shingle-Hanging 201.” As you can see, this year’s column has a new name, but the same purpose as last year’s version, called “Shingle-Hanging 101.” The idea behind it was to chronicle my journey from firm life to solo life and beyond, in a narrative form. We wanted to provide the emotions and internal thoughts of someone going through the process of starting a firm. Instead of just a description of tasks that needed to be done, we wanted to focus on the feelings of how it felt while doing those tasks.
Many of us, including me, need or needed some type of encouragement for one reason or another. A few years ago, when I was hoping or maybe even just dreaming about being my own boss and having my own firm, I would have benefited immeasurably from an honest, personal perspective of someone my age who had hung his or her own shingle. I did not just want to know how to do it. I wanted to know what it felt like.
Over the past year, I have shared the many highs and lows that just this one person has felt opening up his firm. Others who have started a firm probably shared some of my emotions and thoughts, but certainly had their own unique and different ones. Regardless, I have found that the column has, in a very small way, brought together a community of folks who were, and still are, looking for something that will make them feel good about themselves professionally, and, consequently, in total.
While the name is slightly different this time around, one thing that will not change is my attempt to give the same sincere approach as last year. This time, though, it will chronicle my efforts to take my law firm to a new level.
I will try my best to share what happens to this firm now that it has been established and settled for a period of time, and my hopes and intentions for further growth. I will relay successes and failures together, so that it is really what I say it is. And most importantly — and what I hope makes this column a tiny bit unique, and as well received as last year — I will always be candid and open about how it all feels.
So, if you are just starting out, feel free to read last year’s pieces online or, better yet, contact me (really!) or someone you know who has done it before. And if you are a year or two in to starting your own firm, then hopefully this will be delightful reading, because we will be sharing in similar types of journeys and emotions together.
THE RECENCY EFFECT
Before we move on to the next phase of my firm’s development, though, I do not want to succumb to the human tendency I described at the beginning of this column. My wife, who is studying for her Ph.D in clinical psychology, reminds me of the scientific term for the phenomenon that has very much piqued my interest: the recency effect. Some might call it forgetfulness. I call it by its more clichéd phrase: taking life and its past for granted.
As I enter year three of my practice, I will not forget what brought me to where I am today. Nor will I forget it in my 35th year of practice. I will not forget it the day I retire. And I will not forget it, even after that.
I was laid off. It happened two winters ago. You may remember; it was the subject of my first column. More importantly, it was what woke me the heck up to take control of my career.
After the layoff, I chose to open my mind and emotions to interested readers about how I felt, and how I tried to tackle and overcome this very unexpected hurdle. For me, it was therapeutic to do so. But I really wanted to share an honest, first-hand take on dealing with an unfortunate circumstance and my efforts to make something more of it than just feel sorry for myself. I felt like that was needed.
It still is needed. With recent headlines of untruthful reports of law school admissions data, and trial coverage of the scandal in Luzerne County, sometimes the truth and trust is just unfortunately really hard to find, even in our profession, where it should be what we all strive to find and deliver. A good dose of candid and straight talk, even self-deprecating stories and acknowledgments of some silly mistakes made along the way, would benefit all of us. It is so hard to find.
I think those types of truths would especially benefit lawyers my age. My generation of lawyers, which includes many of my dear and closest friends, have been told many things. In college, many of us who had a passion and desire to become lawyers were told about the bright career prospects and financial rewards. In law school, many of us were told to work here and not there. Then, at our jobs, many of us were told to do this but not that. This type of instruction makes for very easy decision making that involves little to no thought, creativity or pursuit of interests and passions.
We become easily habituated to listening to instructions, and then simply doing it. Taking a far back seat is the concept that I think unfortunately has evaded some professionally: listening to what you, as an individual, actually want to do; seeking out advice on what it is you want to do; and then doing what you want to do. I ended that habit two years ago, and moved the back-seat concept to the driver’s seat.
In starting my firm, I have abandoned the previous career lifestyle I unfortunately followed for many years — simply doing what others told me to do or landing wherever it is that I landed. I also have now abandoned, as much as possible, decision-making that rarely considers my desires and interests. Life all around has become so much more enjoyable and rewarding because of it.
It was not easy, though, and I hardly deserve the credit. I constantly seek out advice from others about my next move. Many in the profession have proven invaluable in their mentoring, guidance and care. The difference is that the absolute priority is doing what I want to do with my career, and not what my college adviser, law school professor or family member seemed to have dictated I do. That way, I process and analyze the advice I seek, and then choose whether to accept, reject or ignore it.
This top priority, of doing what I want to do, I regrettably never considered during the early part of my career. I was too worried about the other stuff, like where I went to law school, or which firm interviewed me and which firm didn’t bother, or my class rank — a number that I thought defined me and meant everything about me, only because everyone in positions of “power” was telling me that it did. I did not know any better, and that was my fault. I know many of my colleagues felt and feel the same way.
My point here is that while it might look promising and great right now, that I have started a law firm I am trying to grow, it was not always so rosy. And I will always remember the thorny times. So while I battle opposing counsel and others every day, the main battle I have professionally, which I think will keep me focused to stay on track, is the battle against the recency effect.
Regardless of success, and regardless of how many times my story is shared about starting a firm in an economic downturn right after being laid off with no clients and not that much time to plan, I don’t want to ever forget how I felt the day of the layoff, how it felt to tell my wife, how it felt to tell my family.
As time passes and I, my firm and you get older, it is easy and convenient to forget about difficult parts of life. For me, though, losing my job a few years ago and facing enormous decisions that needed to be made so quickly and without any time to plan — that sequence of events always will maintain a permanent place in my mind, my heart and my life’s story. So I will always share the experience of being laid off with others who ask me about my firm and how it all happened. There is nothing to hide.
So, what really changed me? It was not being laid off. That just woke me up. What really changed me was a self-realization and reflections inward. What really changed me is confidence in myself that I never knew I had before. What really changed me is realizing that I am who I am, and my story includes the setbacks — all of them.
Bad experiences should not prevent you from trying to make your life great and wonderful. I am not ashamed of mine. I am proud of them. And that has helped me recently celebrate my firm’s second birthday and continue to have something to write about.
I will never take for granted the reasons that I am where and who I am today. I am who I am because of what happened to me two years ago after I lost my job.
Why are you who you are? More importantly, what are you going to do about it?
David Koller is the founder of Koller Law, where his primary practice areas consist of employment and labor, litigation, estate planning, representation of the elderly and consumer protection. He also is of counsel to Nochumson P.C. He can be reached by telephone at 215-545-8917, e-mail at [email protected], or through his website, www.phillyhometownlawyer.com.
This article originally appeared on www.YoungLawyerOnline.com, a website affiliated with The Legal Intelligencer.