Top 10 rules to be a successful lawyer
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A third-generation trial attorney, I have spent a majority of my life either working as a lawyer or hearing about it at the dinner table growing up. I was a trial attorney in North Carolina for nearly 27 years and retired in 2004 to go into consulting. I moved to Oregon in 2016 and decided to take the Oregon state bar exam because I had an in-house counsel job offer that required a law license.
Once I passed the bar exam and got my law license, the job did not materialize. I decided to continue consulting with a focus on lawyers. After all, lawyers seem to have many unique skill sets and problems that only lawyers can appreciate. As I prepared for the exam, I began to reflect deeply on my years spent as a family law attorney and as a business consultant working with lawyers and law firms.
In hindsight, many past challenges and issues I experienced became very clear. We are here to live life and be as successful as we can possibly be. I have collected some thoughts about practicing law—and life in general—that can help lawyers to be successful, whether they are young or old.
1. Do not be a prisoner of your past. What happened in your life is a lesson, not a life sentence. We are our own jailors, and our minds are the key. You do not have to obsess over events that were painful or not what you wanted. You are not a victim, so don’t act like one. True leaders and winners accept what has happened and move on. However, we do have to learn and not repeat behavior that produces unpleasant results. This may be more important for older lawyers, as they would have more past experiences than a younger lawyer.
2. What comes out of your mouth is more important that what goes in it; however, you are what you eat. This can become a vicious cycle because when we eat or drink things that aren’t healthy, it makes us feel depressed, stressed or angry. We can say things we will regret when we feel terrible. So, if you are eating unhealthy foods or drinking too much, you will feel bad, which makes you say negative things, which makes you feel worse. So you will eat and drink more—and on and on. Alternatively, if you are depressed, stressed or angry because of your circumstances, eating unhealthy foods and drinking too much will make you feel worse, which makes you behave poorly and the cycle repeats.
3. People will admire you more for your health and happiness than your bank account. Think about it; who are the people you admire most? What is the object of this game called life? Is it to die with the most toys or the most friends? Wealth and possessions are addictive; you will never have enough. If you are healthy and happy, wealth will naturally come to you in whatever form you choose. Wealth is relative when you are healthy and happy. Wealth will not be enough if you aren’t healthy and happy. True wealth is in your heart, not your bank account.
4. Take 10 minutes each day to not think but just breathe. One of the most common complaints among lawyers has to do with overthinking. Everything. We are trained to analyze, anticipate and avoid problems. The problem is we love to think, and that is not always good for us 24-7. Take 10 minutes every day and focus on your breathing. It will make you feel much better and give your brain a reboot.
5. Lawyers are admired more for their honesty (and/or humanity) than winning. We all know those lawyers who are aggressive, confrontational, disagreeable and just plain unlikeable. People may dislike dealing with them or fear them, but they are rarely admired. Think carefully when you choose how to deal with your colleagues, clients and the court. Would you rather be admired for your honesty and integrity or feared because you are a jerk?
6. You have to balance and take care of your body, your mind and your family/community. One of my senior partners once told me, “To be successful, you have to focus on your legal practice, your family and your church.” I believe that was incorrect. You have to focus on your physical body, your emotional body and your family, however you define that.
7. Nothing is more powerful than kind words. You can get your point across without being hateful. You will attract more clients with honey than bitterness. There has been a trend lately of lawyers threatening each other with ethics complaints or similar actions. This is ridiculous. Lawyers don’t have to threaten each other to make their point.
8. Embrace change. Change is good. Change is growth. Presidents and administrations change at least every eight years. Each time there is change, there is opportunity. Look for the opportunity in change. Don’t resist. If you leave a law firm or change your practice, that is a good thing! If we are struggling in our practice, it is evidence that something needs to change. Perhaps you need new partners, a new practice area or to get out of practicing law altogether. Most of the lessons we learn as lawyers are valuable in the business world and can translate to success elsewhere. Alternatively, get a new hobby.
9. If you don’t control your emotions, they will control you. Many people don’t understand how powerful their minds are and what they can do with them. When we don’t focus on positive events and thoughts, chances are we will focus on negative events and thoughts. That is what lawyers do because we focus on worst-case scenarios. It may come as a surprise, but most successful people do not focus on worst-case scenarios, they focus on the best thing that can happen.
Admittedly, if you are stressed, angry or depressed, it is difficult to focus on positive thoughts. However, it is the only way to heal whatever is causing the stress, anger or depression. As a footnote, if you are clinically depressed, best you seek medical advice. Abnormal brain chemistry may need more than positive thinking.
10. Being a lawyer is a gift. Remember we choose to be lawyers, we weren’t drafted. Many times, we feel like we are in prison or worse: hell. We are only required to do the best we can and that is always enough. If practicing law is not for you, you can do something else. If you are good at it but aren’t having fun, you need to get your mind in proper working order.
When practicing law gets dicey, that is the time you need to be grateful. It is easy to be grateful when you win the big case; it says more about your character and integrity if you can be grateful when times are rough.
James Gray Robinson, a third-generation trial attorney and expert in family law, practiced for 27 years in his native North Carolina until 2004. Since then, he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations and leading corporations. Robinson’s mission is for all people to have fulfilling, peaceful career experiences and work environments. At age 64, Robinson passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. Learn more about his work at jamesgrayrobinson.com or email him at [email protected].
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