I really enjoy the writing of Dr. Atul Gawande, the New Yorker contributor who is also a practicing surgeon. For one thing, surgeons are very interesting creatures — in many ways, they are the trial lawyers of the medical field. Just like trial lawyers (and generally litigators who do more than just brief writing), surgeons need to acquire certain basic technical skills, but the true measure of their value lies in their ability to achieve, through the exercise of leadership and artistry, a favorable result for the client or patient. And just as it takes years of residency and fellowship for surgeons to transition from technical proficiency to artistry, so too must the aspiring Biglaw first-chair trial lawyer undergo a seemingly interminable apprenticeship on the road to courtroom glory. (At least surgeons never lack, due to the frailty of the human body, practice subjects. Biglaw trials are harder to come by — but that is an issue for future exploration.)
Back to Dr. Gawande — something he recently prepared caught my eye. In early June, Dr. Gawande was invited to give the commencement address at Williams College, and his remarks were posted on the New Yorker’s website shortly afterwards. In his talk, Dr. Gawande argued that avoiding catastrophic outcomes — e.g. a stalled career, a Dewey, etc. — is possible, but only if the decision-makers are capable of recognizing the risks of their current paths and able to practice the “art of rescue”….
Of course, as aptly put by Dr. Gawande, “accepting that you need a new plan … is commonly the hardest thing to do.” I agree, and have learned firsthand, through my own mistakes mostly, that acquiring rescue skills is absolutely essential to survival and success in Biglaw — neither the lawyer or the law firm will last very long without the individual or collective ability to exercise “judgment, teamwork, and acceptance of responsibility.” Just as surgeons who regularly lose patients are not long for their licenses, the current or prospective Biglaw lawyer who is unable to avoid catastrophe — be it as mundane as missing an important deadline, or as involved as a serious personal issue — is similarly at risk of a short-lived career. And as ably and painstakingly chronicled in these pages, the implosion of Dewey (the Biglaw equivalent of the Hindenburg crash) provides a textbook example of the consequences and collateral damage that can ensue when so-called “leaders” can not become “rescuers.”
Every assignment, case, and relationship carries with it the risk of catastrophe. Being human, we will make mistakes that threaten to lead to undesired results. But we can also take steps to make things better, and we need to if we ever want to end up triumphant.
A high-minded commenter on my introductory piece took me to task for failing to acknowledge the lucky breaks that I received along the way, which allowed me to reach my current position despite doing everything the wrong way with respect to securing a Biglaw job. I prefer Providence to luck, so credit whichever you like. But what is important is what I did with those breaks, and the fact that as my career — and the careers of most who are successful in Biglaw — progressed, the role of luck in achieving the next milestone diminished.
To make the idea concrete, let’s assume that I was not the most motivated law student, leading to a mixed bag of grades. I could have bemoaned my fate, becoming prisoner to the view that those grades irreversibly rendered it impossible for me to secure employment at certain firms. Or I could have done what I did, which is to have worked harder than I ever did in my life, for year upon 2000-plus-billable-hour-never-refusing-an-assignment-year, in order to demonstrate the work ethic that I lacked before.
In short, I rescued myself. The above is just an example, and I can think of many others just in my own career so far. And I would imagine that everyone who has reached the partner level has had to rescue themselves along the way, thereby evidencing an ability to “stay in the game.” Of course, the title “partner” does not absolve the bearer of the responsibility to exhibit good judgment — or allow one to give in to the human temptation to bask in the glow of past achievements at the expense of exercising “judgment” and “acceptance of responsibility” in the present.
Unfortunately, we have plenty of examples of “failures to rescue” in Biglaw that we can point to as well. They are difficult to observe, whether they be the collapse of a law firm, a colleague’s flame-out, or a client relationship gone wrong. It is not easy to consistently avoid the “failure to rescue something,” but it is an essential ingredient to a successful Biglaw career. What Dr. Gawande reminds us is that we owe it to ourselves, our families, and our profession to develop our own rescue skills — so if ever called upon, we can demonstrate a “mastery of rescue.”
Any stories of “rescue” successes or failures during your Biglaw career? Share them below in the comments….
Failure and Rescue [New Yorker]
Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at [email protected].