Brian Tannebaum, my fellow small-firm columnist, recently described as silly the notion that “success in the law doesn’t come from good legal work.” I agree with Tannebaum that success requires far more than “being able to obtain a volume of calls from a fake presence, a creation of a ‘brand,’ and trying very, very hard to get our hand to the top of the baseball bat of the internet.” But I also think that success doesn’t come just from doing good legal work. In my experience, the most talented lawyers often are not the most successful, at least by traditional definitions. Nor are the most successful lawyers the best lawyers.
For Biglaw associates, success is usually defined as making partner. Anonymous Partner recently wrote that when you make partner in Biglaw, you “occupy a new professional status, and the nature of making partner is such that no matter how badly you screw up the rest of your life, you have accomplished something very rare. It is a life milestone, on par with getting married or winning the lottery in terms of its immediate alteration of your identity.”
And who makes partner in law firms? The best writers? The best oral advocates? The most thorough? The hardest working? The most efficient? Not necessarily any of the above.
Partnership decisions vary from firm to firm, and I am not so cynical to suggest that merit plays no role. Obviously, “merit” always plays a role. It’s just that what is meritorious is in the eye of the decision-maker, and that differs from what many associates might think is most important….
When I was first considering applying to law school, I was thrilled to learn what the LSAT tested. I loved the idea that mastering the LSAT required no prior knowledge. By taking practice tests, I could master the skills needed to excel. This was very different than, for example, the MCAT, which tests a wealth of substantive knowledge. Mastering the MCAT requires a lot of actual study, not just practice.
Law school itself had the same appeal. I remember sitting in my first class, on my first day, terrified along with everyone else. Professor Stephen Burbank quite literally wrote the book on Civil Procedure, and he was among the most challenging and demanding professors. I remember finding comfort in the fact that none of my classmates had an advantage over me. The nature of the law school curriculum, coupled with anonymous grading, struck me as refreshingly egalitarian. No matter how much more substantive knowledge they might have, no matter how better educated they might be, my classmates were all starting from scratch on that first day. Or at least that was my impression, and it gave me comfort.
It was with that same sense of optimism and opportunity that I began my legal career. Like many (most?) lawyers, I wasn’t the most popular guy in high school. I was on the debate team, not the football team. I viewed life in a law firm as an opportunity to be recognized and rewarded for my skills. I assumed, naively, that all law firms were meritocracies, and that the “best” lawyers would naturally rise to the top.
It didn’t take long for me to become disabused of that notion. In the Breakfast Club of law firms, Anthony Michael Hall — the brain — might conduct the legal research and write the motion, but it is Emilio Estevez — the popular kid — who ultimately makes partner. Many people have noted the increasingly long odds against making partner. Given those odds, there are too many losers at the partnership game to conclude that losing implies a lack of legal skills.
I learned a similar lesson in helping to establish and run my own firm; namely, that successfully running a legal practice requires far more than being a good lawyer. In fact, especially if you know how to assess and hire quality associates, then being a good lawyer is probably far down on the list of necessary attributes.
A law practice is, fundamentally, like many other businesses that sell their services. Success comes from controlling your expenses, managing your employees, properly setting your prices, and attracting sufficient customers. Of these, generating business is the most important factor governing success in both in Biglaw and in running your own firm.
Of course, being a good lawyer doesn’t hurt. One of Tannebaum’s points is that doing good work will create satisfied clients, and satisfied clients will, in turn, naturally tend to lead to both repeat business as well as new referrals. That makes sense, even if there are many other things that are both necessary and sufficient to being “successful,” however defined.
We’d like to think that the best lawyers are also, coincidentally or not, the most successful. Certainly we see plenty of examples. John Quinn, for example, is known both for his formidable skills in trial as well as establishing and growing one of the world’s most successful law firms. One of his former partners recently expressed to me his amazement that Quinn is willing and able to spend so much time in court, trying cases, while also running his ever-expanding litigation empire.
The disconnect between being a talented attorney, on the one hand, and a successful one, on the other, isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. If you are not the most naturally skilled lawyer, you can take heart that you can still be successful. Even if you weren’t on Law Review, you can still make partner in Biglaw, or become successful in private practice. And even if you consider yourself naturally skilled at practicing law but little else, you can still learn the skills and efforts needed to establish relationships and generate business, and otherwise become successful either in Biglaw or boutique.
Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.