Young Lawyers: Differentiate Yourself

Young Lawyers: Differentiate Yourself

Lessons in Leadership and Advice for Setting Yourself Apart from the Crowd.

      Adam Bryant, columinst at the NYT and author of the book, "The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons From CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed," just put up an article titled: Distilling the Wisdom of C.E.O.'s (warning, will consume one of your free monthly NYT pageviews. Workarounds here), in which he puts forth the following scenario:

IMAGINE 100 people working at a large company. They're all middle managers, around 35 years old. They're all smart. All collegial. All hard-working. They all have positive attitudes. They're all good communicators.

So what will determine who gets the next promotion, and the one after that? Which of them, when the time comes, will get that corner office?

In other words, what does it take to lead an organization - whether it's a sports team, a nonprofit, a start-up or a multinational corporation? What are the X factors?

To put the question in the perspective of a professional services firm, is it really so different to ask which associate will make partner? What is it that propels one person ahead of the next? After picking the minds of dozens of CEOs, Bryant distilled their thoughts and ideas into 5 qualities that separate them from the rest:

  1. Passionate curiosity.
  2. Battle-hardened confidence.
  3. Team smarts.
  4. A simple mind-set.
  5. Fearlessness.

The entire piece is worth the read but I wanted to touch on "passionate curiosity." I think many who have recently graduated from law school often falter in remaining passionately curious once they move on from law school. There is a tendency to want to "put your nose to the grindstone," keep your head down, and crank out those hours. They're done with school and done with learning. Time to take a break. But you can't ever stop learning, you can't ever stop pushing forwards to know more about the law, the people around you, yourself, the world. 

It is no coincidence that more than one executive uttered the same phrase when describing what, ultimately, is the C.E.O.'s job: "I am a student of human nature."

The C.E.O.'s are not necessarily the smartest people in the room, but they are the best students - the letters could just as easily stand for "chief education officer."

Why "passionate curiosity"? The phrase is more than the sum of its parts, which individually fall short in capturing the quality that sets these C.E.O.'s apart. There are plenty of people who are passionate, but many of their passions are focused on just one area. There are a lot of curious people in the world, but they can also be wallflowers.

But "passionate curiosity" - a phrase used by Nell Minow, the co-founder of the Corporate Library - better captures the infectious sense of fascination that some people have with everything around them.

Passionate curiosity, Ms. Minow said, "is indispensable, no matter what the job is. You want somebody who is just alert and very awake and engaged with the world and wanting to know more."

Awake. Engaged. Alive.

Don't be on auto-pilot as you go through your day. Actively listen when people are speaking - give them your full attention. Be inquisitive about new projects and tasks that come your way - what are the underlying themes, principles, and subtext involved? Speculate about the world around you - your job isn't your life. Learn about art, history, music, philosophy, sports, technology. Push yourself in odd directions - one's that don't make sense to anyone but yourself. Gain different perspectives and experiences from your peers.

Differentiate yourself. 

Expanding your knowledge of the world will help you be a better person and, in turn, a better lawyer.

Keith Lee is a Law Clerk with an insurance defense litigation firm in Birmingham, AL, and a recent graduate of Birmingham School of Law.  Keith is the author of the blog, An Associate's Mind.

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