A lawyer’s advice for a learning professional

Stephen EllisStephen Ellis is a partner at the law firm Tucker Ellis & West.  Thanks to David Maister’s blog (which Maister discontinued in January 2010), I came across a commencement address Ellis gave at Case Western Reserve School of Law in May 2008.

Unlike the Case grads, I’m far from the beginning of my career, but I found Ellis’s ideas both pertinent and refreshing.

And that was before this section:

The fact is, our profession has become increasingly unhappy over the past couple of decades. I am convinced the vast majority of that unhappiness derives from a single seemingly innocuous event in the late 1980’s: The American Lawyer magazine began publishing the AM LAW 100, and listed the profits per partner of the 100 largest firms. Virtually all of the firms in this country immediately bought in to that statistic as the only credible measure of success. The game was on – we lawyers would now take our measure almost entirely from money, at least in terms of what was publicly discussed. Without question, integrity, service and professionalism were important, but how we measured ourselves was money.

This was a terrible mistake and now, more and more of us see its dark implications: the bragging rights on how many billable hours we charge (and the matching lost weekends and evenings); rates that are topping $1000 an hour; and clients who believe their files are being worked to death by armies of inexperienced associates.

Here’s the title of Ellis’s address: On Being a Happy (and Successful) Lawyer.  He speaks well (judging from the transcript), and I thought many of his points would be worthwhile to pull out and adapt to… well, to me, a person in the learning profession.

So I’m putting several of those points here, for when I don’t have time to reread the entire address.  Where he talks about the law, I just mentally edit things to read “the learning profession.”  It’s worth the effort.

First, be someone others can count on.

Clients come to you because they have a situation they cannot solve on their own. Most are not looking for an analysis of the law. Most want you to solve a problem. So solve it, don’t add to their problem by being hard to find, by missing deadlines, or by simply describing their problem back to them.

Second, be an interesting person.

Force yourself to do be able to talk about more than law – read books, go to movies, be part of politics, go to lectures. You’ll meet people, you’ll be able to talk about things that other people find interesting, and you won’t burn out on your job.

Look out for yourself.

Mentors are important, but they are only a resource.  Accept that you are in change of your success…. If you think you need experience in an area, make it your business to go get it.

Determination matters.

Great careers are the result of day after day deciding to do good work and being someone who others count on.

Be enthusiastic.

We lawyers take pride in being the first one to find fault with an idea.  Makes us look smart…. clients want to do things.  They don’t call you so they can not do things.  They want to stay in the borders of the law, but they want to be told how to do what they want to do…

There is no better way to end a client meeting than saying “This is going to be great” and to mean it.

Trust yourself.

Among the most important conclusions I came to as a young lawyer was that if I didn’t understand something, it was because the thing in fact didn’t make sense, not because I was stupid.

Most of the times I’ve found myself in hot water it’s because I let a conversation continue past the point where I understood what was being said. And virtually every time I would say “Stop, I’m not following this,” someone would come up to me after the meeting and say “Boy, I’m glad you said that. I had no idea what we were talking about.”

People I admire talk a lot about organizational culture.  Whatever image I had of the culture of a law firm, I’ve had to modify it (at least as it applies to a good law firm) based on Ellis’s thoughts.  I know these are good reminders for my own professional life as well.