Mental Health and Work/Life Balance

Getting Out Of Your Own Way To Succeed in Law and Life

I once had a partner who I will call Marvin.  Marvin was a capable lawyer who had a specialty in a particular area of litigation.   Marvin was personable. He could bring in lots of work in his specialty and hold onto clients.  Marvin was also smart.  He could look at a complex problem, boil it down to its essentials and identify the most practical solution.  Marvin was particularly good at developing litigation strategies and he was also very good at negotiating with other counsel and at persuading judges to rule in his favour on all sorts of issues. 

On the other hand, Marvin was not very interested in all that technical stuff that has to get done in order to sue someone.  Things like doing research, drafting motion materials or statements of claim, and getting them served.  The boring stuff.

One thing that Marvin was really bad at was supervising a team. Actually, Marvin was pretty bad at supervising anyone, including his assistant, the associates, and even the articling students.   For example, Marvin would provide imprecise instructions to the first junior associate who he saw walk by his office when he realized that he needed help and demand that the work be completed immediately.  Often, the unlucky junior associate would not have the confidence to ask the great man to slow down and provide all the required information.  

Marvin would not ask the associate whether he had other competing priorities, and he would then run off to court or to the gym or to lunch or to somewhere else where he would not be available to answer the associate’s questions.  On his return he would look at the predictably poor work and show his frustration with the associate’s efforts.  Not surprisingly, the associates hated working for him.

One of the things that I really liked about Marvin is that he was open to constructive criticism and he understood his own limitations.  A brilliant managing partner at Marvin’s firm discussed the problem with Marvin and suggested that Marvin should delegate all of his work through a senior associate of the firm named Audrey.  Audrey had a reputation for being competent, well-organized, and having good delegation skills.  The idea was that Marvin would give all of his work to Audrey.  Audrey would pin Marvin down on all of the relevant details and force him to confess what the real deadline was, and then determine who the best person was to do the work.  Audrey would assign the work, answer questions as they came up, follow up to be sure that deadlines were met, review the work, and give it to Marvin.

Marvin listened to the proposal, pronounced it reasonable and said, “let’s give it a try.”  Even the managing partner was surprised that Marvin readily agreed to surrender his natural right as a senior partner to boss associates and students around.  But Marvin was like that – he did not allow his very healthy ego to get in his way.

Freed of the burden of doing the stuff that he hated, Marvin was free to spend even more time bringing in business. The quality of the written materials that “he” produced was greatly improved.  Audrey’s billable hours increased.  The associates received proper instruction and supervision. Everyone was happy.

There is something to be said for having a healthy ego when you are a litigator.  On the other hand, a litigator who has a big ego around the office can be a pain in the neck for everyone around them.  I suppose that people who are absolutely brilliant in all aspects of their professional life can get away with having a huge ego much better than normal folks like me who are better at some stuff than at other stuff.  Most of us normal people can compensate for our shortcomings if we can put our ego aside and accept help from other people with complimentary skills. 

It never ceases to amaze me how many lawyers are just not able to do that.   Even among the lawyers who recognize that they cannot do it all alone, many of them seem to feel a need to make sure that everyone understands that their own skills are the important ones – everyone else is just “support”.

Of Marvin, people used to say that he had all the natural attributes to be a great lawyer, but some how he never made it to the top tier of lawyers of his specialty who got the really big files and made the really big money.  That did not seem to trouble Marvin.  His ego never drove him to develop a “heavy hitter” reputation or to get the biggest clients or the highest value files, and it did not seem to bother him in the least.

Marvin led a very nice life.  He started the day with a Bloody Mary in his hot tub overlooking the park, made his way to the office at a reasonable time, took care of his files before leaving to promote business over lunch at the finest restaurants with a glass of the best wine.  He worked for a few more hours in the afternoon before knocking off at a reasonable hour to meet his wife or friends for dinner at a superb restaurant.  He took great vacations during which he did extreme skiing, played tennis at a very competitive level, travelled the world, or went scuba diving.

Those lawyers in Marvin’s specialty who were the “heavy hitters” in the profession could always be counted on to comment that Marvin just never reached his full potential.  Everyone thought it was a real shame. Except Marvin.  Or me.

4 replies on “Getting Out Of Your Own Way To Succeed in Law and Life”

“A brilliant managing partner at Marvin’s firm”

I presume this was you?

A lovely parable about both ego and also the importance of translators.

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