Learning to Define Success as a Lawyer
We’ve all heard the following story before: “For a long time I chased money, but found out that the real joy in life comes from things you can’t buy.” Beyond a trope used commonly in movies, it’s a real-life experience I’ve actually had.
When I was younger, I found myself chasing an ideal. My ideal consisted of having a financially successful law practice, becoming a well-known mover and shaker, and having a large house in a private subdivision near where we used to live. My motivation and drive came from achieving those things and mostly those things alone. I believed that once I achieved those things, then everything else would fall into place, and I’d find myself in a situation where I was personally happy. Whether by fate or pure dumb luck, I stumbled into multiple situations that shocked me out of that mindset.
If you’re motivated and driven by money like I was, I want to share a story with you. A year or so ago, I noticed a billboard where a father and a son advertised their local insurance business. As I’m apt to do, I filled in a back story for them.
Follow me, if you will, to a morning at their local insurance shop. Situated in a rural town on a courthouse square, there’s a building with wood paneling covering its walls and a distinct smell that all old buildings have. There’s a large window at the front with a platform behind it, where holiday decorations are put up every season. Every year they let the high schoolers come and decorate their windows in support of the local team’s homecoming game. Locals pop in on a daily basis, and everyone knows dad and son, as both grew up in what many city folk consider a backwater town. Every morning the son comes into work, and dad has a fresh pot of coffee brewing in the back. “Did you see the game last night?” “Sure did, Dad.” “How’s junior?” “Growing like a weed as always.” They share the same conversation nearly every morning over a cup of coffee before beginning the day’s work. There are tough times, sure, but both do well enough to get by, and the dad goes home every night knowing his son will one day take over the family business. The son occasionally catches a look of pride in the dad’s face and knows that while other opportunities existed for him after college, he stayed home and is happy he did.
Close your eyes for a moment: Can you see them? Can you feel, in your heart and your bones, the relationship they have together?
Imagine that the son lives in a small one-story house with his wife and two children. The dad’s home isn’t that much bigger, and he drives the same truck to work that he’s driven for the last twenty years.
Is the son successful? Does he meet your standards of success? Would you swap places with him?
For some reason, stories like that (particularly any Capra story like “It’s a Wonderful Life”) that harken to some nostalgic relationship with a parent in a small town hits me in the feels. Perhaps that tells you more about me than it does about you. Perhaps you’re probably thinking I need to work through these issues — don’t worry, I am (and yes, I fundamentally believe we all need to be in therapy)!
But, if something inside of you stirred, no matter how small, and thought, “yeah, that sounds really nice,” maybe we’ve started to feel around in the dark for what success looks like. Just maybe we’ve pointed to something other than financial success as a barometer.
So, what does success look like? How can you measure it? If you’ve achieved it, will you know?
Some people measure success by the size of their bank account or the size of their house. Some people measure it by the amount of time they spend with their loved ones or on hobbies they enjoy. A lot of people measure it by blending the tangible (monetary wealth/amount of belongings) and personal wealth (quality time spent on things you enjoy).
Success and how to measure it remains a mystery to me. I don’t have the answers to what success looks like, nor can I tell you what success should like for you. What I can offer are some ways that I measure success, and maybe those guideposts will serve you well on the path you travel. As you can see, there’s something appealing about a father/son relationship that has always stuck with me — something I was deprived of when my dad died when I was young and something I never truly established with my step-father. That’s not a life I’m able to have, and maybe it’s a miserable one. The nice thing about romanticizing an alternative life is that I don’t have to actually live it, so I don’t get the bad that comes with the good. But, through therapy and other forms of self-actualization, I’ve realized that there are specific personal qualities I want to develop to achieve some measure of “success” in this life.
To achieve this, I engage in a daily and deliberate exercise I want to share.
Much like I do when I’m fearful, I like to measure what types of things I’m doing in order to get a fair assessment of whether I’m moving forward or backward. Daily, I take a look at the following three qualities and see how I’ve exercised them in my daily interactions and whether I lived them out or fell short. In a journal, I write out:
- How was or wasn’t I respectful?
- How was or wasn’t I kind?
- How was or wasn’t I resilient?
I can’t tell you how I arrived at determining the above qualities to serve as a barometer of my own success. I did narrow them down, though, and determined them as the best fit for where I am in my life now. I encourage you to think about qualities you find in “successful” people that fit for you. For me, I determined that the people who I think are the most successful are respectful and kind. If you’re rude, arrogant, or disrespectful, I don’t care how much money you have or how big your house is — I don’t want to emulate you. That’s for me, though. Also, a quality I have to really work on daily is resilience. The type of work we trial attorneys do is tough. Client stories are emotionally challenging, working with adjusters and abusive defense lawyers is grinding, and fighting against state legislatures hellbent on destroying the 7th amendment is an uphill battle. I can let daily challenges like these gnaw at me and I have to make sure I put a premium on resilience.
As a practical matter, it’s literally as simple as me writing out the following:
- How was or wasn’t I resilient?
- “Today I had to get a demand letter out and finish discovery. I wasn’t absolutely pressed to get the demand out, and I could’ve got an extension from the other side on the discovery, but I asked myself, “What would I want my lawyer to do? What would I expect from my lawyer?” And so, I did them. Nothing major, but life is all about inching forward one day at a time. Good day for resilience.”
Some days I fall short. Some days I get angry or disrespectful with an insurance adjuster or someone in my personal life, and I find myself throwing a pity party…and that’s okay. But, I journal that. I acknowledge I fell short and take a look at what I need to do to correct any behavior on my part or if I need to make things right with someone.
The goal for me is to focus on these qualities daily. I’m never, ever seeking perfection. But, I hope that I can do just enough to look back and realize that I’ve been more kind than not, exhibited respect and grace when I didn’t have to, and pushed myself internally to resiliently move the ball forward. I suppose if I can patch enough of those days together, then that’s success to me. What’s success to you?
Interview With Bernard Nomberg