The Legal Intelligencer

Q. I have been practicing for nine years now and feel that I am doing well. However, I can see that a few others of my vintage in my firm have made partner, and some law school classmates who are in-house have risen to positions that may be a step or two ahead of me. With all due respect to them, I know that I’m smarter than a few of them and a better lawyer than the others. My question is this: what are the so-called stars doing that I’m not?

A. This is an incisive question that surely took some courage to submit. Aspects of it frequently arise in my discussions with lawyers, especially those who aspire for greatness. The challenge in a profession, especially one like law, is that no one factor can be relied upon if one truly wants to succeed. This is contrary to what many have experienced throughout their lives.

For instance, sheer intellect can carry one through college, law school, and the early years of practice, as tests and assignments can easily be aced. Ditto for those who may not be Mensa members but have an incredible capacity for working hard. They, too, can excel through those stages simply as a residue of their intense effort.

At a higher level, though, where the seasoned performers play, the real stars have figured out how to pull it all together and don’t rely on just one of these characteristics. Although I don’t know enough about you to pinpoint your personal areas for growth, I will discuss five important characteristics that define most legal superstars.

Play to Win

Why has Tiger Woods dwarfed his competition in his quest to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ championship record? Sure, part of the answer is that he is gifted, but there are players who can hit the ball farther, others who can putt better, and a few whose short games are superior.

The overriding answer is that his only goal is to win, especially at the biggest events. It is not to do well (such as making partner or becoming a general counsel), or to finish high on the money list (such as being paid handsomely in your firm or company); rather, it is to win, period.

This is the difference between being a partner with a lower case “p” and being an uppercase “p” who has influence in your firm. This also what separates a general counsel who does a good job from one who becomes a valued member of the senior management team who is heavily relied upon by the CEO for general business advice.

Be Optimistic

Elite professionals tend to be optimistic in assessing challenging situations and most often can chart a path to success. Some of that is driven by their strategic capabilities and some is fueled by a high degree of confidence, which leads them to conclude that they will find a way to make it happen.

Conversely, lawyers are taught to look for problems and to plan for contingencies if there is failure. Litigators, for example, are often brought into a matter when things have broken down and have to scramble to undo damage. This training and career experiences can often then produce a negative mindset in which a typical lawyer looks for problems rather than the potential upsides in a new situation.

A recent experience illustrated this, as I spoke to two partners who recently were asked to participate in a lengthy and complicated request-for-proposal process. The first partner complained mightily about the amount of required work and his perception that the odds of success were low. He was surprisingly frank that this mindset affected the submission. The second partner enthusiastically embraced the opportunity and told me he just knew that his firm was going to get it. A decision has not yet been made, but I believe the odds favor the second partner.

Be Politically Smart

Unless you decide to start your own company or firm, you have to learn how to play well with others. Politics come into play, to some extent, in all organizations, whether it is a mom and pop grocery store or a Fortune 50 international giant. Those who master the politics in companies, or at least are mindful of them, can vault ahead of others who are tone deaf or foolishly choose to ignore them.

Lawyers can sometimes fall into the trap of believing that their success obviates the need to get along well with others. While great success will provide such lawyers with more latitude, most firms and companies eventually tire of the headaches caused by the outsized egos of megastars, even if they bring in millions of dollars of business or have the ear of the CEO.

This admonition, though, is not a call to be overly political, i.e., to be the person who hyper-focuses on the angle to be played in any situation, is the Zen master of the blind carbon copy e-mail function, and is afraid to speak up in a meeting, lest he potentially upset someone. Rather, be fair, respect the opinions and rights of others, and, in general, be a team player – it will serve you well.

Be Courageous

A trait that virtually all legal stars have is the courage to take a risk, even if failure can have significant consequences. Bobby Kennedy poignantly focused on this when he said: “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” This does not mean that one should take foolish risks; rather, it entails having the gumption to get out of a comfort zone to really ‘go for it’ in appropriate circumstances.

I recall a litigator who made partner, received early administrative responsibilities, and seemingly was on the road to great success. This attorney was eventually passed by others who rose to the top of the firm. What happened? Well, the lawyer played it safe, deftly positioned her cases to settle (so that she could avoid a crushing verdict against her client) and otherwise took an extraordinarily conservative approach to professional life.

Stars are not afraid to “put themselves out there,” and neither should you, whether that entails pursuing a big deal or having the courage to retool if it necessary in your career. This may sometimes mean that others may not like you at times, as others can resent those who have the nerve to do what they are afraid to, but you should be able to handle that.

Always Be Prepared

There is a popular, unattributed saying, “failure to prepare is preparing to fail,” that rings rather loudly in this context. High achievers, especially those who long to stay atop the perch, always heed this warning. Being fully prepared, whether it is for an oral argument, or for that chance encounter with a CEO, is often the difference between doing well and winning. It is vital that you remember this and avoid the temptation to just go on your experience, and to forsake that same level of preparation that was the hallmark of your earlier years.

I recall how excited I was to have a highly celebrated lawyer, who had just been on the front cover of a national legal publication, come in to make a pitch to handle a new case for our company. We could not have been more disappointed, however, when this lawyer literally “just showed up,” as he knew little about our company and even less about the matter that was at issue.

He mistakenly thought we would hire him because of his name and past achievements. Rather, we selected a rising star who dazzled us by the homework he had done, as believed that this was a better gauge as to how he would handle the matter.

This is not, by any means, an exhaustive list. Focusing on these five, though, should provide a good start.

FRANK M. D’AMORE is the founder ofAttorney Career Catalysts,www.attycareers.com, aPennsylvania-based legalrecruiting, consulting andtraining firm. He is a formerpartner in an AmLaw200 firm, general counsel inprivately held and publiclytraded companies, and vice president of business development.He can be reached at fdamore@attycareers.com.