I’ve spent nearly half my life as a lawyer in Charleston, South Carolina handing divorce, DUI and criminal defense, and personal injury claims. I just passed my 20-year mark practicing law, and I’m turning 50 in April. Considering these milestones, now seems as good a time as any for a little reflection on what I’ve learned along the way.
Although age is a high price to pay for wisdom, at the end of the day it’s worth the cost. Whether you’re a young lawyer, a client, or anyone from any walk of life, I want to share with you the following 5 lessons I’ve learned about being successful in your life. If you think I am talking about being “financial” success, that’s not my point. To be sure, it’s challenging to be joyful when you are struggling financially. Trust me – I’ve been there! Instead, I am talking about the true measure of success in your life which is reaching a point of understanding about who you are and what your life’s about.
1) Be Humble – I must admit, this is a hard one for many lawyers to master. Lawyers spend their days “taking charge” of other people’s lives such as other people’s marriages, their estates, their need for compensation for the harm they’ve suffered at the hand of another, and so on. Also, many lawyers spend time rubbing elbows with others who have power and influence such as judges and politicians. Lastly, there are those lawyers who’ve found financial success. As a result, some lawyers buy into their own hype and they begin to view themselves as having more importance than others. The same could be said about other learned professions such as doctors. This notion of self-importance is an illusion. Everyone around you plays an important role; don’t take their role for granted. Here’s a simple example. If your garbage man stopped coming by your home for weeks on end and you found yourself wading through piles of your own rubbish, you’d soon come to appreciate his weekly visits, wouldn’t you?
2) Be Compassionate – Depending on what type of law you practice, you may find yourself become jaded or insensitive to your clients’ needs. This doesn’t happen overnight for most lawyers (this includes judges too). Call it the “crush of years” that comes with practicing law. Many lawyers deal with cases that involve heart-wrenching tales of woe where children and spouses are abused, defendants do unspeakable things to others, persons who lie, cheat, and steal to get to the top, and unfortunate souls whose catastrophic injuries have permanently altered the course of their lives. Over the “crush of years,” lawyers become desensitized to these horrific circumstances. They feel that if they don’t detach themselves, then compassion and empathy will drag them down and make them ineffective. Not true. It’s OK to feel compassion for your clients. Instead of allowing compassion turn into depression and dark thoughts about human nature, turn your compassion into a conviction to right wrongs. Sure, you may not win every case or find the justice you seek for every client. Nevertheless, don’t stop chipping away, one client at a time, one case at a time, by channeling your compassion into your chosen profession.
3) Be Giving – As lawyers, we’re in a position to do good for others regardless of financial reward. Ask yourself what you want your legacy to be. Better still, ask yourself what you want your epitaph to read. Which sounds better to you? “So-and-so Esquire was an accident attorney that made a boatload of cash by handling fender benders” or “Mr.
[or Mrs.] Smith will be deeply missed by the community” because lawyer Smith was a champion of justice and gave freely of their time to various causes or to the impoverished or disenfranchised. You don’t have to change the world or right every wrong. Every bit helps. Each year, help a client without any concern for financial reward. Take the case because the person or cause is genuine, because they have no one else to turn to, because their cause is just, and because your profession blesses you with the opportunity to make a difference to others. Lastly, giving doesn’t have to be “legal.” There are so many worthwhile causes, too many to name here, that desperately need volunteers. At the end of the day, recognize that you have a moral imperative to help others without any regard for a financial payback now or in the future.
4) Be Balanced – In pursuit of success, many lawyers make the mistake of overlooking their families, their friends, and even themselves. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t work hard at being a good lawyer and doing your best for those in need. What I am saying is that you should find a balance between your law practice and your life. Your family needs you too. Don’t let precious moments with your children or your spouse slip past you. It’s OK to leave work at a reasonable hour, to spend time with loved ones, and to take the time to develop interests outside of the practice of law. Ask any aging lawyer who spent the majority of their time in the office whether it was worthwhile. An honest lawyer will tell you that they have regrets for the time they lost with their loved-ones. Always remember that being a lawyer is what you do, but it is only a part of “who you are.”
5) Accept Change – As lawyers, we want to “control” life’s events. We want to control the success of our law practice. We want to control the outcome of our clients’ cases. We want to control how others view our profession. It’s all about control. Lawyers aren’t the only ones who want to control things. At some level, we all want to have control over our lives. Inevitably, many folks suffer from depression and anxiety because they feel that they don’t have control over the persons and events in their lives. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that what we planned for our lives, and what life has planned for us, are two different things all together. So what can be done? As lawyers, help yourself and help your clients to accept the changes in our lives, both good and bad. In another article, I shared the following ancient parable about the “taoist” farmer and accepting change. I believe it is worth sharing again. I hope it helps you understand the concept of acceptance as it has helped me:
A poor farmer and his only son lived on a mountain side, working the land each day with their only horse. One night, the horse broke out of its corral and ran away. The farmer’s neighbors told him, “What bad fortune you have farmer,” to which the farmer replied “Perhaps.”
Later, the farmer’s horse returned to the corral trailed by a whole herd of wild horses. The farmer’s neighbors told him, “What good fortune you have!” The farmer replied, “Perhaps.”
The next day, while breaking in one of the wild horses, the farmer’s son fell to the ground and broke his leg. The farmer’s neighbors said, “What bad fortune you have.” The farmer replied, “Perhaps.”
Later, the warlord of the farmer’s village was in need of more soldiers, so he sent a captain to conscript young men to fight in a war where young men faced a certain death at the hands of the enemy. The captain passed over the farmer’s son because his son was crippled. Once again, the neighbors told the farmer, “What good fortune you have farmer!” Once again, the farmer replied, “Perhaps.”