The first advice I recall receiving as a lawyer was to be myself. That was surprising, because I had no idea there was such demand for a sleep-deprived know-it-all, buried under a mountain of rejection letters and debt. Be myself? I imagined fighting for justice like the cool Atticus Finch. I planned to make witnesses crumble under cross-examination like Perry Mason. I wanted to be Cousin Vinny winning an acquittal of the two “yutes” accused of killing the clerk at the Sac-o-Suds.
So like most fresh law grads, I mimicked what I observed other lawyers doing. I parroted discovery requests from forms; I copiously copied contract language others had written or used; and when I went to court, I mimicked what I perceived was the way to be a lawyer – a Wisconsin lawyer, meaning I regrettably eschewed Atticus’s white suit and Vinny’s red velvet jacket and stuck with a navy suit.
It did not take long for me to feel like a lawyer and be fortunate enough to enjoy some success. However, it was 15 to 20 years in practice before I started to perceive the real me was more a part of my professional existence. That’s when that old advice started to make sense – the key to professional satisfaction is to find a way to be yourself in what you do.
If you observe happy lawyers and judges, that’s precisely what they do. Those comfortable with quips may break the tension in court or in negotiations with humor. Attorneys who are personable focus on that trait when speaking with clients or counsel. A creative writer finds a way to use that style in otherwise-drab legal documents. Someone who is more comfortable working alone may use extra organization and detailed notes when personal interaction is required.
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Yet being yourself is more than those simplified examples, and that’s why I believe it takes a while to figure it out. Maybe it’s related to attaining a more comfortable stage in life where we have fewer of those anxieties and insecurities of youth, and we care less what others think of us as people. It doesn’t hurt to have student loans paid off and to be able to smile rather than shudder when someone mentions the Socratic method.
We may be class clowns or cool as a cucumber; geeks or gregarious; flighty or fearless; stubborn or shy – all terms that people in my office have used to describe themselves (the editors have wisely suggested I omit the terms used to describe each other as well as a few select lawyers elsewhere who evidently never cared what people thought of them).
Regardless of our personal constitution, we can improve our happiness and be better lawyers by being ourselves. Naturally, we have to temper our originality for legal situations that dictate formality and decorum. Heck, that may be the only deterrent keeping me from wearing my red velvet jacket to court.