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Skill Sets # 11: How to Succeed in (Our) Business

Skill Sets # 11: How to Succeed in (Our) Business


Posted October 23, 2020

The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it and not say anything.  If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them.  Holden Caulfield

I like watching younger lawyers reach.  I don’t like watching them fall.

One subject mentors hope to discuss with more junior colleagues (whether asked or not) is: How can they have a successful career and how can they succeed at their firm? Here is my answer.

I start with the obvious acknowledgement that the question is a loaded one, because it focuses on “success” without defining it.  Success means different things to different people.  And we are not talking about success in the abstract, we are talking about success in our business.

For some success as a lawyer may mean money for its own sake or for the sake of material comforts. It may mean power, or it may mean recognition and gratification through respect, or from being on page one of the annual list. On a different scale, success may mean partnership, managing partner or senior partner. On yet another scale it may mean ascendancy to the bench. It may, one hopes, mean happiness, or the opportunity to contribute to the betterment of others.  There is no definition in the absolute, and success may mean one or a combination of things.

I especially like this advice regarding success from Anne Marie Sweeney, formerly the President and co-chair of various Disney properties because it makes that very point:

“Define success on your own terms, achieve it by your own rules, and build a life you’re proud to live.”

I tell our junior colleagues that no matter what individual goals are pursued, and no matter how success as a lawyer is defined, the journey to success has base elements common to all.  It is important to appreciate that differences in how we measure success, are differences in degree and not in kind.  And this simple observation means many things, principally important of which is that there is no easy path, there are no shortcuts. In their place are principles and steps and practices that will be basic and fundamental to whatever one’s aspirations may be.  The other lesson I tell our junior colleagues up front is that because their definition is the only one that matters, they are being judged by the hardest of judges, themselves. Success is after all, subjective, not objective.

Here is the advice I give and believe in. Some of these points are practical, some are philosophical. They are all important:

  • Understand why you became a lawyer; why you are at your firm; and why you want to stay
  • Believe in yourself; believe in the firm; be unafraid to take your place
  • Settle on the area(s) of practice you wish to specialize in, or at least more than in others
  • Think carefully and realistically about work life integration, what it looks like for you, and what impact the work you want to do will have on it – so that you can design and maintain the balance that works for you, your family, your friends and the firm
  • Get to know everyone – be a member – see and be seen
  • Work with, cooperate with, collaborate with and trust your peers
  • Be reliable
  • Think team.  Concentrate on growing the pie, not only your piece of the pie
  • Be practical
  • Capture your time and docket efficiently and well
  • Bill efficiently and fairly
  • Think long term; embrace the virtue of patience
  • Find a good mentor and be a better one
  • Soak everything up, no matter what your year. Ask questions, read, research, attend programs, never stop learning
  • Take advantage of every task, every opportunity ever moment the firm offers you
  • Throw yourself into everything that you can
  • Treat everyone the same, and, be the same to everyone
  • Think client
  • Think commitment
  • Think culture
  • Be present and prompt
  • Think and act like an owner, step forward, do your part
  • Represent the firm with dignity. Be proud to do so.
  • Understand the issues and the constraints that the partners face, especially now
  • Work hard and sensibly at developing your practice
  • Prepare your work carefully
  • Do good work
  • Don’t cut corners
  • Serve the client and the interests of the client at all times
  • Join the Bar as an active member
  • Serve your community of interests
  • Write/Present/ Attend
  • Take care of yourself. Be mentally aware. Practice wellness. Eat well. Exercise. Breathe.

Although it may seem to be a formidable list, it is not.  Much of it will come naturally.  All of it derives from recognition that we are members of a privileged profession, whose business it is to serve our clients forthrightly and well.

Sorry, there is one other point.  Have Fun. Fun has been suitably defined as “the enjoyment of life to its fullest potential, whether the situation or experience is simple or complex”.

Both work and play have room for fun, as does reaching for the gold ring.

This blog post was written by K. Scott McLean, General Counsel and Director of Practice Management.  He can be reached at (613) 369-0375 or at

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