Last week on my way out of a CLE at the federal courthouse that was very well-attended by young lawyers, I looked at an empty fishbowl that was intended to be a drawing for a gift card to iTunes, courtesy of the event’s sponsors. I dropped my business card into the fishbowl. There lay my card, all by itself. I expected to be a guaranteed winner.
It was only a few years ago at around this usually delightful time of the year that I contemplated leaving the profession altogether. I did not know what I wanted to do next, but I knew it was not what I was doing at the time. I wanted to do anything else. Anything.
I was a frustrated lawyer. I was frustrated with the work I was doing — work that I felt no attachment in performing, and work that I felt no accomplishment in completing.
I also was frustrated with the amount of money that three years of law school cost me. It did not appear to be giving back to me anything close to what I had hoped for, both financially and emotionally. That was depressing.
The questions I pondered at night were not whether I could assist this client who needs my help, or what my next career step as a lawyer would be. Instead, my mind was filled with what appeared to be never-ending doubt. I asked myself, “How did I get myself into this situation?” “Am I ever going to be able to recover?” and “Was going to law school the worst decision of my life?”
All of this had nothing to do with my job at the time. I liked my job, and was performing well in certain capacities. Every day, I went to work. Every so often, I made some clients happy. Once in a while, I made my bosses happy.
I also received a paycheck every two weeks. While by no means was I able to save money because of my student loan debt, the income was enough so that I could take my wife out to dinner and to see a movie once in a while. At the same time, I had enough money to pay the bills every month.
Things could have been a lot worse, too. I recognize that life was, overall, pretty good. But life professionally was not great, or at least as good as it could have been. The fact that I did not know what, or whether, I could do anything about it frustrated me.
Something about my path was not sitting well with me. I was being led by a random series of events and choices I made based upon whatever options were presented to me at the time. And as a result, I was not performing to my potential. I knew that, and it left me puzzled.
I needed to take control of my life professionally, so that when choices needed to be made regarding my future, the options presented to me were a direct result of my efforts and more consistent with my wishes and desires, not just a bunch of job opportunities that happened to present themselves at the time I happened to be seeking something new.
Now, four years into shingle hanging, and three lawyers deep, I realize what it was about my prior life as a lawyer that made me uneasy. It was not at all the jobs I held. I worked for great law firms, great lawyers and people I respected and will always respect.
What left me feeling uneasy was that I felt unsatisfied, and I felt unsatisfied because I felt that if I were not doing what I was doing, then someone else would be doing it just as well, and the world would be no different. In essence, I felt very, very replaceable.
I did not like this feeling at all. I wanted to do and be something more in my career and life. Since starting my firm, I have satisfied my desire for that type of meaning. In my own little world, mostly mentally, I feel less expendable than I did before. That feels really good.
Part of that good feeling I get nowadays might stem from my role as a mentor. These days, I am an employer. I have two younger attorneys who work with me. I believe I get meaning and a good feeling out of trying to make sure they become productive and responsible members of the bar.
Each day, I try to remember what it was like to be in their shoes not so long ago. I think about what I liked and what I did not like about having a boss, about having to perform certain assignments delegated to the rookies, and about making less money than I thought I deserved or that the market in Philadelphia dictated. I think about these things so that I stay in touch with what it takes to overcome the bad and feel the good.
I personally recall my own feelings of what I thought at the time stemmed from being overworked, underpaid, understaffed, underappreciated, taken-advantaged of, all of the above, or any combination of the above. I now know that all I felt and sought was a feeling that I was not expendable. That is it.
We deserve, as lawyers, to feel good about ourselves and feel like our work has some sort of meaning. For years, I yearned to feel like I was not just a part of a collection of free agents here together for one run at a championship, only to be broken up next year, but that we were all homegrown talents with a strong farm system who would develop and reach full potential with each other over time. I believed that a mindset like that would lead to a championship organization composed of long-time and dedicated employees. It worked for the Phillies a few years ago when they won the World Series with a collection of their own prospects who developed into stars.
Trying to position your employees, then, to feel special about themselves amidst the stresses of our profession is certainly not an easy task though. As an employer now, I have learned first-hand that sending that message and creating an environment where that message permeates requires commitment, perspective, creativity and insight.
I try to think of enticements to keep people on board, committed and motivated. Bonuses are one way of creating that mindset of feeling unique and exceptional. I think about rewarding employees financially when a positive result comes through the door, or when we make more money than we expected. Likewise, I think about small tokens of gratitude that probably make he or she who gives feel better than he or she who receives, but still sends a message of gratitude.
Giving opportunities to gain significant and meaningful experience is another way of creating that mindset of feeling unique and exceptional. I often ask for input from my employees about virtually every major decision in a case that has to be made. And, equally as important, I keep my employees informed once the decision has been made so that they are not left wondering what is going on. I think many young lawyers might say, if honest, that this seemingly simple step is often overlooked, and the lawyer is then deprived of valuable learning experiences.
Often times, to promote involvement and the sharing of ideas, we gather as a group over a lunch outside of the office when we talk about some of our cases. That does not mean the employees are making the decisions or that I necessarily rely upon their advice or thoughts in making the decision. However, I find it to be a very useful exercise to help make the employee feel appreciated and a part of the team. And more often than not, I learn a few things from listening, or hear a good point or idea that I did not think of myself.
Above all, though, I have found through experience that the most important part about trying to establish an environment where everyone feels special and meaningful is by trying to instill confidence in each employee. It helps to give them decisions to make. If you are in litigation, that could be as simple as letting someone handle the settlement negotiations or discovery dispute in a smaller case, or at the very least asking them for an opinion as it pertains to a certain issue or matter related to the case. It also is important, I have found, to let each person’s own individuality be accepted and fostered at the firm, which will foster confidence.
While I devote resources and energy to trying to create this atmosphere, it is risky business. I know full well that somebody could snatch up your homegrown talent with promises of higher compensation packages, attractions, benefits and otherwise supposed greener pastures. Take, for example, the Yankees. That is what they have been doing for years. But without risk there is no reward. The hope is that the time, devotion and commitment yields a sense of teamwork and a “we are in it together” mentality that is uncommon in many workplaces.
For me, the first time I truly felt special and not expendable was when I started my own law firm. Certainly, for others, that feeling comes at different times and for different reasons. Individually, we have to find our own way to that path. It does not matter what you end up doing that makes you feel irreplaceable, or how you end up getting there. It simply matters that you get there. As young lawyers, we still have plenty of time to feel it, but the sooner, the better.
A few days after the CLE I attended where I dropped my business card into the empty fishbowl, I got a call from the sponsor of the event congratulating me on winning the iTunes gift card. It was completely expected, because I was the only one who put the card in the tank.
I thought it was really silly that not a single other young lawyer dropped his or her business card into the fishbowl. It took minimal effort on my part to do so, and was as close to a guaranteed victory as there is in life. Yet nobody else took advantage of these favorable percentages.
I became a shingle hanger at a moment in time when my alternative was to stay on the path that left me feeling expendable and unexceptional. Had I not dropped my business card in the tank some four years ago, I do not know if I would still be a lawyer today. Now, I simply love being a lawyer and I feel everything that I need to feel in order to be committed to the practice in a way you have to be in order to be successful.
As young lawyers, it is important to know when it is time to drop your card in the fishbowl, even if nobody else is doing it. Position yourself so that the odds are in your favor, and have confidence in your decision to try and achieve meaning and a direction for your career that you, and you alone, dictate.
If you are like me, you might like the music that you get to choose to play more than the music you have been listening to on the station you refuse to change. •
David Koller is the founder of Koller Law, where his primary practice areas consist of employment litigation and counseling and commercial litigation. He can be reached at 215-545-8917, firstname.lastname@example.org, or through his website, www.kollerlawfirm.com.