Five Things that Being a Successful Attorney has Taught Me About Success

1. Have your own vision of success

It’s a basic concept: you have to know where you’re going in order to get there.  You must have a clear idea of what success means to YOU.  Think about it.  What is your definition of success?  What does success look like? What does it feel like?  Is it being a Judge, a professor, a partner in Big Law, an entrepreneur,  an App devloper, or a public defender?  Try those ideas on. What fits? Coming up with your own definition of success is an exercise in self-awareness.  You have to reach deep inside yourself and connect with your values and what you want your life to be about.  Only you can discern your vision of success.  A coach can help, but at the end of the day it’s all about you.

Can you successfully pursue someone else’s idea of success? Yes, but are you going to be happy or fulfilled? Probably not.  It’s just like buying a pair of shoes that just don’t fit because they’re a little too small.  You’re never comfortable, the fit is a little too tight and, eventually, you admit it to yourself, you’re in pain. Eventually, the shoes end up in the back of the closet or in the trash. Staying with this analogy for a little longer, what happens next? Well, unless you find a pair of shoes that fit properly, the same thing will happen over and over. Imagine what would  happen if you found a pair of shoes that you love. You love the way they look and fit, and they are exactly what you wanted all along. How does this translate to success?

Think about those lawyers you know who work in jobs they hate for the security of a steady paycheck.  They hate what they do every day but grind on. They aren’t happy, and no one wants to be with them. These are the attorneys who spend their days processing paper or showing up in court on case after case without any emotional engagement with what they are doing.  Yes, they bring home paychecks, but they know something is missing in their lives. They are in pain because they are living someone else’s idea of success.  So, either they stay miserable, or they try to make things better by changing jobs.  But, if they haven’t connected to their own vision of success, they are unlikely to find a good fit.

Success is an emotional experience and, in order to really and truly be successful, you have to love what you are doing.

2. Silence the internal and external naysayers and believe in your ability to be successful

Let’s say you have done the hard work of figuring out what your vision of success is, now the voices, internal and external, start putting up objections and obstacles.  You have to get them under control. When I was in coach training, we used to call these voices in your head the inner saboteur. The voice that is always giving negative feedback: “it’s risky,” “you’ve never done this before,” “you could fail,” or “it’s scary, you don’t know how to do this.” You have to silence that voice.  To be clear, the inner saboteur is not your survival instinct (or “Spidey sense”), which is based on a rational analysis of the situation.  Remember that feeling you got when a prospective client presents and tells you about how their 3 or more previous attorneys were incompetent and messed up their perfectly meritorious 10-year old case.  That feeling is your survival instinct kicking in. Warnings based upon objectively verifiable facts are generated by your inner survivor, and I’m not writing about that voice. I am writing about the people in your life and your inner saboteur, who, often for reasons of their own, undermine your confidence.  For instance, when I left the law firm I was working for in law school to take a legal aid job, one of the partners said, “It’s your funeral, you are giving up a good job for a job that goes nowhere.” He was wrong—all that he cared about was the inconvenience of replacing me. For me, it was the best possible career decision because I took a job that supported my values, gave me lots of skills and opportunities and helped me grow as a lawyer and as a person.

3. Persevere in the face of obstacles and failure.

Perseverance or grit, as some people call it, is showing up with the determination and willingness to do what it takes to get the job done.  It’s seeing the boring tedious task to completion.  Staying on the team until the job is done.  A person with grit is a reliable and valued team member. Grit is living up to your commitments even when other things get in the way, and when things don’t work out, it’s not for lack of effort.  To be clear: it’s not doing the same thing over and over in the face of repeated failure—that’s being crazy.  Failures do happen on the way to success. They are an inevitable and an essential part of the learning process. If a child doesn’t fall while learning to walk, how will she learn to pick herself up?

4. Learn from your mistakes, adapt to change and keep an open mind for new learning opportunities.

This is often referred to as having a growth mindset. People who view mistakes as a learning opportunity are much more likely to succeed. Perfectionists, who can’t bear the idea of making a mistake, don’t take risks and don’t grow.  Trying something new is always risky and carries with it the possibility of failure.  Successful people are always listening and learning, they adapt to change, embrace new technologies and approaches, ask questions, respect expertise, and stay open to new ideas and ways of doing things.

A good coach can help clients with these four success essentials.  But before closing, there is one more thing I have learned about success.  No one can be successful if the opportunities just aren’t there.

5. Take advantage of your opportunities and make opportunities for others

The greatest regrets in life are often regrets for things that we did not do–the path not taken.  For me, it was the day I decided that my parents would not allow me to study abroad and so I never asked.  I still wonder what would have happened if I had asked. Be brave, try new things and take educated risks.  At the same time, be mindful that many attorneys come from marginalized groups that do not have full access to opportunities even after law school graduation and bar membership. We should all consider what we can do to open the doors of opportunity wide for all to pass through.  Successful people work to help others succeed.

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