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“The Best And Brightest” – A Weekend At the ABA YLD Leadership Conference


While I was traveling last week, I found myself wandering through some random magazine store in O’Hare looking for something to read. Whenever I fly I use it as an excuse to pick up something I don’t usually read. I was looking around and the cover of the latest Scientific American Mind caught my eye. The lead story, Enhance Your Resilience (paywall) by Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney, featured researched and advice on developing resilience. They note:

resilienceWhether a person hangs tough or gives up in hard times depends on influences at multiple levels, from molecules to neighborhoods. Resilience is determined by both inborn traits and environmental factors that affect the capacity to adapt to stress. Although some of these environmental influences, such as poverty, are difficult to alter, a person can increase his or her level of resilience by developing mental and physical habits that foster positive adaptation to stress and trauma.

While people aren’t actually using the term “resilience,” it is a topic that I think is one the minds of many fresh law students and new lawyer at the this particular moment. Last week over at the Philly Law Blog, Jordan Rushie posted Some Actual Questions To Ask Yourself Before Deciding To Go To Law School, By A Non-Ivy League Lawyer in response to a variety of complaints that are often voiced on certain anonymous lawyer forums. An excerpt:

Are you dedicated to getting good at what you do, or do you just want an easy paycheck?

 “Your honor, I went to a better law school than my less prestigious opposing counsel, so clearly my argument is better”, said no lawyer ever.

“Your honor, I went to a better law school than my less prestigious opposing counsel, so clearly my argument is better”, said no lawyer ever.

…when clients have an issue, they need someone who can help them fix it. When a client selects a law firm, biglaw or small law, they are not looking for a fancy degree, but someone who can help them fix their problem. It might be a biglaw partner, it might be a solo attorney. It depends on what their needs are.

The #1 thing I would look for when hiring someone is dedication to the profession. Are you interested in becoming a better lawyer? Do you take CLEs and read books that will help you develop as a professional, or are you just hoping to show up, work 9-5, and collect a paycheck?

It’s not hard to become a lawyer. But becoming a good lawyer takes years of dedication, taking your licks and then saying “Please sir, may I have another?”

What did I do this weekend? I spent time reading “Winning at Deposition” by D. Shane Read (again) and organizing files.

Once you become a good lawyer, people will pay you to represent them. And you will not be a good lawyer the second you walk out of law school, or for many years to come. So if you’re not interested in developing yourself as a good, effective lawyer, then this isn’t the right profession for you.

It seems odd to me, but there is a vocal group of recent law school graduates who wanted to be glorified clerical workers with high incomes. Do the 9 to 5 thing, 40 hours a week thing. Did none of these people know any lawyers before they went to law school? Forget lawyers – anyone with motivation, grit, or drive? There are very few paths to success that follow the 9 to 5 route. It is bare bones, minimally acceptable, lowest common denominator. It’s what average people do to get by. Yet as Mark Hermann noted in his Inside Straight column on Above The Law, most lawyers are average:

Let’s assume for a moment that arithmetic is true.

This means that the average lawyer is average.

And average is actually pretty bad. (As one of my co-clerks said during the first week of a clerkship, reading a Ninth Circuit brief several decades ago: “This is great!”

“What? Is the brief good?”

“No! The brief is terrible. We are not gonna starve!”)

Tweedledee-TweedledumThe average lawsuit thus pits Tweedledee against Tweedledum, and, sadly, they can’t both lose. After the verdict comes down, Tweedlewhoever boasts on his website of another great victory and yet more proof of his talent and expertise.

Twenty years later, what does that look like?

The average lawyer becomes average because they lack resilience. They let their world drag them down: clients, emails, phone calls, mortgages, student loan debt, CLEs, networking, the economy, opposing-counsel-is-a-jerk, kids, spouse, bar complaint, audit, managing-partner-is-a-complete-ass…it’s easy to become overwhelmed. But you have to push back.

Do you want to be Tweedldee or Tweedledum? I don’t.

Jordan spent his time re-reading a practice guide over the weekend. Where does that fit into a 40 hour work week? Think he wants to be average?

ABA YLD Leadership Conference

This past week I attended the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division’s Leadership Conference in Chicago. It was held for the incoming group of young lawyers who would be moving into leadership positions across the ABA YLD – officers, councils, representatives, & boards.

I met dozens of young lawyers from across the country. From solos like Greg Doucette to associates at AM Law 50 firms. But what does it mean to move into a “leadership” position? It means that everyone present volunteered to be there for what is essentially, extra, unpaid work. The time at the event and their roles for the YLD will not come out of their time at work – it will come out of their personal time – time away from family and friends.

Even at the conference, people were firing off emails and joining conference calls between sessions. Probably a quarter of the lawyers there were not flying home but flying on to a different city for a deposition, hearing, or client meeting. No one was there because they had won the law school lottery – there were all there because they were resilient. The had developed skills and habits that allowed them to modulate and constructively harness their response to stress. They are not the type of people to fall prey to “millennial malaise.”

One of the speakers at the conference referred to the attendees as “the best and the brightest” that the ABA has to offer among its young lawyers. I’m not sure about that (personally I can be pretty dim at times), but I do know that all the young lawyers I spoke with were incredibly driven, hard working people. They weren’t there to goof off and have fun (though fun was had). The young lawyers at the leadership conference were there because they wanted to stand out. Raise their profile, and in turn, the profile of their firm. Meet other lawyers. Contribute. Become recognized and gain a reputation through volunteering and extra work.

These young lawyers all knew that success was not going to be handed to them on a silver platter. Success requires long hours, hard work, and dedication. It requires resilience, grit, and sacrifice. And they were all willing to do whatever was necessary not to be average.


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About Keith Lee

I'm the founder and editor of Associate's Mind. I like to write, talk, and think about law, professional development, technology, and whatever else floats my boat. I practice law in Birmingham, AL.
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