Willing to tweak the wheel

Patrick Berry, The Levison Group

As a young associate in a law firm, I’m constantly seeking out advice and guidance from those around me. I am lucky to have great mentors, both with and without law degrees, who have offered me their keys to success in life and the law. Advice like “your life is not your work,” “the person who works the hardest is usually the luckiest,” and “treat your law firm staff with absolute respect and courtesy” come immediately to mind. I will carry these lessons with me throughout my career.

However, there is one piece of advice in particular that has always irked me. “Do not reinvent the wheel.” This is a common mantra law students hear throughout law school, especially when being given advice on how to succeed in “real world” legal jobs. Legal writing instructors professed that the word “plagiarism” does not carry with it the dirty stigma it does in other professions. Senior attorneys are senior for a reason, and while you might be able to build upon and advance their work, don’t set out to change their methods or techniques.

There are, of course, good justifications for this basic principle. The unprecedented economic downturn has made the concept of “lean billing” ubiquitous throughout the legal marketplace, making it necessary to be as efficient as possible in producing a work product. New lawyers generally know relatively little about any one particular area of the law, and it can be useful or imperative to look to the work of seasoned attorneys for guidance. Further, courts typically favor stability and consistency over innovation and creativity. Once a court has interpreted a specific clause, for example, it can be a perilous undertaking to endeavor to change it, especially when clients pay for results, not stylistic perfection.

But in life, as in the law, a certain degree of innovation, creativity, and boldness is essential. I think about how my life would be different if I had held rigidly to the notion that I should follow the lead of the (admittedly) successful people in my life. When I was accepted to an elite east-coast law school (lets say, school “X”), I received countless calls of congratulation and well wishing. When I asked which school I should choose between school X and a very respectable (though lower ranked) Midwest law school, the decision could not have been more clear in their minds: the “prestige,” “recognition,” and “reputation” of school X is unparalleled, and some of the most well-known attorneys in the country graduated from it. I chose school Y. It was a better fit for my fiancé (now wife) and me, who had a great job in the area, and I believed it was a place where I could be “happy” (a word not always synonymous with “prestigious” and “recognized”).

After telling my mother my decision (and spending days convincing her it was the right choice for me and my future), she offered the following advice, which has proved just as valuable as any of those mentioned above: “Make this decision the best decision of your life.”

It can be a scary thing to buck the norm, to challenge the status quo, or to approach life in a way that those people whom you have incredible respect for disagree with. But, when you have a vision, a little creativity, and a load of determination (to make a decision the best of your life), any result is achievable. As it turned out, things worked out pretty well for me and my wife. I had great professors, stimulating classes, received a handful of academic awards and generally did quite well. I recently began work at a very well-regarded law firm, and my wife has been able to keep a job she worked incredibly hard to get. Sometimes it pays to disregard the prototype laid out by those that came before you, no matter how well it worked out for them.

I recently watched “Jobs,” a film based on the life of Steve Jobs, the co-founder and former CEO of Apple (and a “master of innovation”). The film alluded to a statement he made in 1995:

“Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

For young attorneys, like myself, it can be intimidating making the transition into a firm or organization where it seems like everyone around you is smarter, more skilled, and just plain better at being a lawyer than you. While there are times where it is necessary to rely on the work or ideas of more experienced attorneys, it is important to remember that you can provide creative thought and new ideas to familiar problems. When you challenge the notion that something is inherently better because it has always been done a certain way -- whether it be a brief, a litigation strategy, an ethics question, or a life decision – it becomes possible to approach the problem with a fresh perspective. When you realize that sometimes the wheel needs reworking, “you can build your own things that other people can use.”

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© 2016 Under Analysis, LLC. Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Contact Under Analysis by e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.

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