Reprinted with permission from the American Bar Association GPSolo eReport.
This article is the last of four installments exploring ways to keep the spark of enthusiasm alive in your law practice.
In my first article in this series, I discussed the dissatisfaction that seems to permeate the legal profession, and the stressful nature of, and long hours associated with, the dual responsibilities of practicing law and running a small business. The questions posed at the end of my article were: “If you [knew that you] had six months left to live, or perhaps more practically as a long-term approach, six years to live, would you continue to work just as you are doing right now? Or would you make some changes?” My second article added the following queries: “If change is needed, what would those changes be? How could the changes be identified and implemented to have a lasting and favorable impact?” My second article went on to explore various approaches for self-examination, with the goal of identifying three areas for improvement. My third article offered suggestions for implementing these changes, which is “where the rubber meets the road.” In this article, I will consider the concept of legacy as a key component of renewing the spark of enthusiasm for your law practice.
The Macmillan Dictionary defines legacy as “something that someone has achieved that continues to exist after they stop working or die.” Katherine Meadowcraft, in her February 5, 2015, blog post for Huffington Post entitled “What Is Your Legacy?” states:
[L]egacy constitutes one’s character and good (or bad) deeds. It is important to note, it is not what one acquires but what one creates. I like to think of a legacy as encouraging the next generation, through one’s choices and actions, to identify and work towards realizing their own accomplishments and greatness. Our conduct in this life leaves behind ripples, an impact, of our actions after our death. In the afterword to The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, Tavis Smiley summed it up: “The choices we make about the lives we live determine the kinds of legacies we leave.”
Last year, I participated as a panelist in a continuing legal education course focused on ethics. One of my fellow speakers made a statement during our presentation that struck a chord. He explained that he viewed his legal career as a giant canvas, a work of art that he created and added to daily. He invited the audience to consider, “What are you adding to your body of work each day?” In considering your legacy, some additional questions to ponder might include:
- What are you accomplishing, looking at the canvas as a whole?
- How are you developing your story each day in order to achieve the ending you want to create?
- When your clients work with you, what impressions do they receive about attorneys and the legal profession?
- What can other attorneys learn from you?
- Are you a role model or a mentor?
- Do you give back to your profession and the community? If so, how?
- If your typical daily interactions with colleagues, office staff, and clients were broadcast on television, would you feel proud?
- When you end your legal career, what do you want others to say about that career, and the type of lawyer that you exemplified? What would be said about you if you ended your career today?
- Are you actively painting that canvas every day, creating the legacy that you want? Or, is there a significant gap between the type of lawyer you’d like to become and the way you are engaging with your work right now?
Practicing law and running a business as a solo or small firm practitioner offers myriad daily challenges and choices, big and small. For example:
- You spent an hour researching something that you know you should have tackled more efficiently. Do you bill for all the time related to the research, or do you write some of it off?
- You only slept four hours last night, and your brief is due today. You desperately need the help of your paralegal but, uncharacteristically, he’s late to work because his car ran out of gas. How do you respond?
- Opposing counsel writes an unprofessional letter excoriating your client, and it lacks any substantive basis in fact and in law. What tone does your responsive letter take?
- You enjoy sharing and commenting on Facebook posts related to our current political climate. Are your comments fully consistent with the reputation that you strive to achieve as an attorney?
- Your biggest client is late with a payment. You need the money as soon as possible. The check finally comes in the mail, but the client overpaid the bill by two cents. Do you deposit the check into your trust account, wait the requisite amount of days to ensure the check cleared, and then take out your payment and mail the client a check for two cents? Or, do you deposit the check into your business checking account and choose to ignore the two-cent overpayment?
Lawyers frequently address questions of this nature. The practice of law is often challenging, demanding, and frustrating. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment rather than considering the big picture. If you begin thinking about your legacy—the canvas you are creating every single day, I submit that your responses to these challenges will become much easier. And legacy, by its very nature, invites enthusiasm and meaning into your law practice. Legacy presents the ultimate challenge by continually guiding us toward who we should strive to become. Consider the five questions posed above. Most attorneys know what we should do: We should write off some of our research time; be kind to our paralegal who made a mistake; write a responsive letter that takes a professional tone and relies upon legal authority rather than insults; keep our Facebook posts professional rather than engaging in name calling and profanity; and deposit the check into our trust account. When you are tempted, in the heat of the moment, to make a choice that chips away at your legacy, but then you think about legacy and choose differently, how does that feel? Empowering? Motivating? Dare I say, mature? By focusing on that feeling and noticing the energy and confidence that comes with making good choices on a daily basis, your spark of enthusiasm toward your law practice may well be reignited.
In addition, I contend that a significant part of our legacy centers on our choices regarding the time, energy, and resources we spend giving back to others. As attorneys, we are fortunate to possess many skills needed by our communities. Opportunities to give back include speaking, writing, participating in bar activities, volunteering to assist a nonprofit, representing clients on a pro bono basis, donating to worthwhile causes, mentoring other attorneys, and maybe even running for public office. Can you meaningfully tackle all of these options? Probably not. But I suspect that you might be able to identify one or more opportunities to give back and mix those commitments into the daily canvas that you are creating. Each and every time you can make a difference in someone’s life, it will add to your legacy and increase the satisfaction and enjoyment you feel toward your law practice.
Last summer, I enjoyed spending time with a childhood friend who is now a mid-career attorney running her own small law firm. We chatted about her brother, now a surgeon in his mid-50s, who expressed a strong desire to retire. I asked my friend, “What about you?” She smiled, a very determined smile that I knew well from many years of friendship, and said, “Oh, no. I’m just getting started.” I hope that, by carefully examining your life and your law practice, identifying areas of improvement, successfully achieving lasting changes, and applying the concept of legacy as an overlay to all that you do, you, too, will feel as if you are just getting started.
1. The Macmillan Dictionary provides two examples of “mature” that come into play in this context: “a mature adult is no longer young, and is considered to have the good qualities of an older person, for example the knowledge and experience of how to deal with particular situations”; and “the mature work of an artist, writer, etc. is produced when they are no longer young and have developed their skill to a high level.”