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How to be Happy & Successful LawyerViews: 955
Nov 14, 2008 11:53 amHow to be Happy & Successful Lawyer#

Stephen C. Ellis is the managing partner at the law firm of Tucker, Ellis & West. What follows is the commencement address he gave at Case Western reserve School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio on May 19, 2008.

"On Being a Happy (and Successful) Lawyer"

Thank you Dean Simson. Even after that gracious introduction, I can guess what most of you are thinking. Who is this guy?

The most informative parts of my background are not in my public bio, so let me tell you a little more to help set the stage for what Iíll be talking about. I graduated from this great law school.

Attending this school is hands down the most important event of my life. My three years here changed everything for me. The sort of squared away corporate type you see standing here this afternoon bears no resemblance to the bell bottomed, lamb chop side-burned college kid of 40 years ago. I look at photos of me and my friend back then and it looks like we were transported here from a strange place very far away.

Before showing up here in the fall of 1969, I was the fun guy your parents wanted you to stay away from. In fact I essentially majored in fun at Denison University, and with graduation looming I was looking for something to do besides start working. A bright enough student bored by academics, I took the LSATís on a flyer, slightly hung over (to my earlier point), and did great, good enough to get me on the waiting list at Case. Back then, when Case was just starting to become a highly respected school, the waiting list was pretty short and didnít take long to clear, so I got in.

By the third week I was totally hooked. I loved law school and the idea that I would know the rules of how society worked ó like someone gave me the back of the Scrabble box. I did very well at our school and for the first time, started to think of myself as someone who could actually accomplish things.

In the summer of í71 I took a job as a summer clerk at what was Arter & Hadden, a 70 lawyer Cleveland firm. Starting as a trial lawyer. I went on to be a transactional M&A/finance type and was able to build a successful, really fun practice. At the too early age of 43 I became managing partner, and ran the place for ten years as it grew to a nearly 500 lawyer firm. In 2000 a friend and colleague took over as managing partner and three years later in 2003, that nearly 160-year-old firm, and my only job for 30 years, collapsed.

Now if itís true that we only learn from our mistakes, with all the degrees that surround me, I am without a doubt the best educated person in the room. But this story has an unbelievably happy ending, because the Cleveland office of Arter & Hadden didnít scatter and collapse into finger pointing lawsuits like virtually every other failed firm. Our lawyers turned down all sorts of great offers to jump ship. We put our money up, signed personally for the bank loan to get started, and chose to stay together as a team. All but perhaps 5 or 6 of our partners, associates and staff, maybe 200 people, threw their lots in together, and we formed Tucker Ellis & West, which is a truly great place to practice.

So, itís been 36 years since I was sitting where you are, waiting for someone like me to finish, and I still love being a lawyer. Every day brings new issues to wrestle, I spend my time with bright, completely engaged people, and all of my clients are people Iím proud to call my friends. I find myself very close to my lifelong goal of not spending one second doing things I donít want to do or being with people I donít want to be with.

I tell you all of this not to brag - well at least thatís not the only reason - but because our new firm rose out of some hard simple truths about whatís good and not so good about being a lawyer today.
The fact is our profession has become increasingly unhappy over the past couple of decades. I am convinced the vast majority of that unhappiness derives from a singleseemingly innocuous event in the late 1980ís: The American Lawyer magazine began publishing the AM LAW 100, and listed the profits per partner of the 100 largest firms. Virtually all of the firms in this country immediately bought in to that statistic as the only credible measure of success. The game was on - we lawyers would now take our measure almost entirely from money, at least in terms of what was publicly discussed. Without question, integrity, service and professionalism were important, but how we measured ourselves was money

This was a terrible mistake and now, more and more of us see its dark implications: the bragging rights on how many billable hours we charge (and the matching lost weekends and evenings); rates that are topping $1000 an hour; and clients who believe their files are being worked to death by armies of inexperienced associates. All of this so the largest firms can bump their statistical rankings and everybody else can compare themselves to the published stars.

But the worst of all this is: that weíve chosen simply money, as our measure of success. Itís too simple to say, ďMoney is the root of all evilĒ because itís not. And I know that the absence of money is a pretty good predicator of unhappiness. But money, just money all by itself, does not provide a sense of worth or accomplishment, or even peace of mind. The fact is, itís in our DNA to always want a little more, and getting more only feeds the need to get a little more.
Hereís the formula on personal budgets that if you donít already know, you soon will. I know all of your parents know this. And you should write this formula down because itís as immutable as a law of physics. Your monthly expenses always equal your monthly income plus $300. No matter what, weíre all looking for ďjust a little moreĒ.

Now weíre going to do a ten second experiment. Take a moment and reflect on the occasions when you felt truly happy - and please donít name Ďlistening to this talkĒ. [8 seconds of silence]
I submit that not one of you is thinking about money or material things. Our best times are always with people we care about, doing things that bring us closer together. But knowing that, we let ourselves climb on this treadmill, running harder and harder, like that donkey trying to catch the carrot on a stick.

I believe this is beginning to change, at least in the arena where lawyers have to keep increasing the hours they devote to work. Hours are being recognized as an irrational measure of value. Nobody calls a lawyer asking them to please spend twenty hours on a project. Clients want to pay us for what we do, not how long it takes us to do it.
In fact, a growing minority of lawyers and clients are starting to move away from hours as the basis for fees. The feature of Tucker Ellis & West about which I am most proud is that we have no billable hour requirement. We value our people for what they accomplish. And that decision has been hugely liberating for us.

I submit thereís much more to being a satisfied lawyer than making a lot of money. Back when I was running Arter & Hadden I would speak to our incoming class of associates and suggest that if their career goal as lawyers was to get rich, they should seriously consider a career change. My point was that most law practices by their nature are designed to produce a comfortable living, not make us rich. We donít take big financial risks, we donít make critical business decisions, we are fundamentally well educated consultants.

If youíve decided to become a lawyer solely to make money if to you itís simply a job I fear youíll hate it. As a career and a calling itís great, and unbelievably interesting, but as simply a job, itís way too hard and stressful. Itís the people, the pace and the endless puzzles of the law that make being a lawyer fulfilling. If you want tons of money for working twenty hours a day and nausea-inducing stress, Wall Street investment banking may be just the thing . In that business the grand old men are burnt out at 45.

Over the past few years Iíve come to some conclusions on finding guideposts that will give us lawyers the best chance of being successful, in the sense of truly enjoying our lives and careers as lawyers. They are simple, some might say ďtriteĒ. But 36 years of listening to happy and desperately unhappy lawyers and watching colleagues succeed as lawyers and people, and some fail, I know that these may be clichťís, but I also know they are true.

Iím going to talk about a handful of these ďtruismsĒ, only a couple of which Iíve made up, on being a successful lawyer in the sense of being fulfilled. Just so you know how close I am to wrapping up, there are nine of these, and theyíre pretty short.

First, be someone others count on. Most folks talk a good game; very few come through. Clients come to you because they have a situation they cannot solve on their own. Most are not looking for an analysis of the law. Most want you to solve a problem. So solve it, donít add to their problem by being hard to find, by missing deadlines, or by simply describing their problem back to them. Itís like going to the dentist when you have a toothache. You want it fixed and you want it fixed now. Thatís what a client wants every time they talk to you. Walk in with a problem, walk out with a solution.

What they want is someone they can count on to make their lives simpler, to accomplish what they want accomplished. If you can simply do that, youíll be sought out as an extraordinarily effective lawyer. And there is a real difference in your sense of self between being simply a resource; somebody who knows the law, and the person that people count on to solve their problems.

Second - be an interesting person, for your own good and so that clients think of you as more than a lawyer. A decent definition of hell is a dinner party companion who is a first year lawyer on the day after his or her first trial. Law stuff is interesting mostly to lawyers. In fact, itís real interesting to lawyers, so thatís what we talk about all the time, just like you talk about law school all the time.

Force yourself to do be able to talk about more than law - read books, go to movies, be part of politics, go to lectures. Youíll meet people, youíll be able to talk about things that other people find interesting, and you wonít burn out on your job.

The horror stories you hear about associates working 2500 hours a year? You will be surprised when you see how much of that is self imposed. These young lawyers get caught up in the chase and find that what theyíre doing more interesting than anything else- so they become that boring self absorbed dining companion. The worldís full of great people with jobs and hobbies that are just as demanding and just as fascinating as yours, (assuming you make yourself get a hobby). Learn about them. Youíll be happier and much more fun to be with.

Here is another obvious but ignored truth. Look out for yourself. Nobody cares about you like you do except maybe your parents, and you wonít be working for them. My late and very wise father used to tell me to not worry about what people were thinking about me, because they werenít. They were thinking about themselves.

Your employer may have a mentoring program, but nobody is mentored into a success. Mentors are important, but they are only a resource. Accept that you are in charge of your success.
So if you think you need experience in an area, make it your business to go get it. Ask somebody; donít wait for it to come along. Donít wait for somebody to notice that youíre missing an important skill. Ask for a promotion - people arenít watching what you do as carefully as you think or hope.

Also, determination matters. It matters more than intellect. The streets are littered with directionless geniuses with unexecuted good ideas. . Woody Allen had it pretty dead on when be said that 90% of success is simply showing up. You wonít suddenly have a great career. Nobody ever does. The secret is simple- great careers are the result of day after day deciding to do good work and being someone who others count on.

Be enthusiastic. Because we deal in rules, itís real easy to fall into cataloging all the reasons something wonít work or why somebody shouldnít do something. In fact, we lawyers take pride in being the first one to find fault with an idea. Makes us look smart. In my days as managing partner I would roll out a strategic initiative, and I could see my partnerís eyes starting to spin. Who would get the prize for being the first one to spot the flaw?

Clients want to do things - they donít call you so they can not do things. They want to stay in the borders of the law, but they want to be told how to do what they want to do. And they want to know that youíre happy to be part of what theyíre doing. There is no better way to end a client meeting than saying ďThis is going to be greatĒ and to mean it. Itís fun to be charged up - to add energy to every conversation.

Trust yourself. You are a very bright person or you wouldnít be here today. I think among the most important conclusions I came to as a young lawyer was that if I didnít understand something, it was because the thing in fact didnít make sense, not because I was stupid. Most of the times Iíve found myself in hot water itís because I let a conversation continue past the point where I understood what was being said. And virtually every time I would say ďstop, Iím not following this,Ē someone would come up to me after the meeting and say ďBoy Iím glad you said that. I had no idea what we were talking about.Ē

Get involved. Organize the reunion or the bicycle race. Chair the church committee. Help people who have not enjoyed your good fortune. You have spent three years learning how to organize your thoughts, analyze a situation, and articulate action plans. Use those skills everywhere in your life. Stuff will get done, people will appreciate your initiative, and you will derive great satisfaction from making things better.

Here are my final two unappreciated but clearly true truths: The toughest lawyer is not the one who is the most obnoxious. Clients will say they want a tough son of a gun to make somebody lifeís miserable, a real bulldog, etc.
Donít be that person. Itís been my 100% uniform experience that the bulldog only adds time, expense, stress and confusion to an otherwise inevitable result. Even clients canít stand them after a couple of months. You want to be tough? Have the best preparation on the facts, the law and the strategy. Judges care only about those things, not a whit for bluster. Bullies are jerks, they wreck the profession for everyone, and you can beat them every time.

And finally and hands down most importantly, and please pass this on to your friends and your children, because itís really important ó Be nice and have fun. Just doing that makes life better for everybody, mostly you.

And now really finally, and this is not a truth, but what I think you should do - thank the people who have helped you get to where you are today, and fully enjoy this moment - you have earned it.

I am honored to have this opportunity today and I wish all of you good fortune, and fun, in this great profession. To each of you, ďThis is going to be great.Ē

Private Reply to Ritu

Nov 15, 2008 4:37 amre: How to be Happy & Successful Lawyer#

Vijay Nair

I have not even spent half of the time he has spent in the profession and can vouch for the fact that whatever he says is right. Charu Sir may have more insight to offer.

Thanks for posting this.


Vijay Nair, Partner
KNM & Partners, Law Offices

Private Reply to Vijay Nair

Nov 15, 2008 3:06 pmre: re: How to be Happy & Successful Lawyer#

Reading Mr. Stephen Ellis was in itself out ran my time taken for finishing my school College, Legal practice, Film acting and suffering two years in hospital. Almost all people who have succeeding by leaning on the rest of the troubled world come and give a detailed imaginary fairness and honesty that hardly makes you successful. A man like me who started practice 57 years back tried to go to some other job and auto crash spine injury sent me back to my fatherís law office and I became a reasonably successful lawyer literally by accident 52 years back.

My achievements are that my law clerk was shot in his bed and one of my juniors in my native was done do death after I moved on the High court. My highest achievement that I can boast of is that an accused for whom I moved bail 52 years back has a statue erected and his political followers and even people who engineered the prosecution are garland and worship there on his birthday. I ran away to cinema and cannot even claim that I have served the audience right. Except confessing to some foolish truths about my shortcomings in both professions, I cannot advice anyone. I am afraid I cannot even impress a full blown lawyer like our Vijay.

Private Reply to charuhasan

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