Lawyers are not known for their patience. But it’s possibly the most important attribute to becoming a great, not just good, lawyer. Here’s why.
“Patience, you must learn patience!”— Yoda
Today, I learned that the common Yoda-esque attribution, “Patience you must have my young Padawan!”, is from the world of memes rather than the actual movie, Revenge of the Sith. On a positive note, Yoda encourages patience generally and provides other sage wisdom, so we haven’t thrown the baby (Yoda) out with the bathwater there.
It’s so not urgent
Patience is something that we lawyers don’t do very well, or even think about most of the time. Everything has to be URGENT, NOW, ASAP—that a lot of us lose the plot when it comes to what is truly important.
It’s also not great for junior lawyers who start to mimic senior lawyers who wear their “everything-is-time-critical-and-we-are-all-going-to-die” badge on a daily basis.
Trust me, nothing bad is going to happen to you. And unlike doctors, incompetence isn’t going to leave a trail of bodies behind. You might want to check in with your PI insurer though.
There are quite a few things that I would do differently if I could go back in time.
One is that 99% of “urgent” tasks aren’t urgent. Even for deadlines that you’d think that should be absolute drop-dead ones, like court-ordered deadlines. As a judge’s associate, I was horrified to find that practitioners often miss these deadlines. Size didn’t matter—small, medium and big firms were all in the mix. Look, I don’t recommend missing deadlines, but I did feel sorry for the poor junior lawyer in the engine room who was probably told to haul their bum through hot coals for it.
The second is to realise that “urgent” tasks often become back-burner issues as soon as we uncover more information about what is at stake. This can happen quickly, even within a 30-minute timeframe.
I can’t even begin to mention the number of times something is “ASAP-important” and then it becomes an entity in Never-Ever Land. Like the intrusion of email-read receipts (a.k.a. I don’t trust that you’re reading my emails fast enough), demanding urgency to everything disrespects others’ time—and it’s not always the client to blame.
Because we rush through “urgent” tasks, our careers and life generally—there is little brain space left for quality decisions or patience. Let’s make 2020 the year where we:
- Think first;
- Get more information;
- Prioritise accordingly.
Don’t just rush into tasks.
The best lawyers can see through the ASAP to the essential big picture. (And without hyperventilating.)
Learning to expand our range
Patience has another advantage. It opens up our minds to the importance of expanding our skillset.
Working in private practice (or most modern workplaces) can feel like being in a very uncomfortable funnel. You’re expected to specialise quickly—and put aside your fancy ideas about exploring what might interest you.
For law graduates, the initial exploration period lasts around 12-24 months, between 2-3 practice groups before you have to choose… YOUR LIFE. Then there are also law graduates who don’t get a choice.
An enlightened senior lawyer once mentioned that if they had it their way, lawyers would rotate infinitely through different practice groups to develop the strongest possible skill set.
The 2019 book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein supports this view. His work critiques over-specialisation (which is happening in almost all fields) at the expense of developing other skills. He finds that the most unique breakthroughs in areas like music, arts, and the sciences come from people who have explored widely in their careers and life. Over-specialisation can mean that we see the world only through our framework and tools—a common problem for lawyers—and miss the bigger picture in the process.
I was concerned that the author’s own patchwork career would lead to confirmation bias, but the examples were, on the whole, convincing.
Law is not an overnight endeavour. There is no one formula for becoming a great practitioner. We need to resist the pressure to rush through things and consider how developing a broad range of skills can add a lot more to our practice.
On this note, here’s a challenge to get out of your comfort zone this year—learn something that scares you (e.g. marketing) or gets your juices going (e.g. brand new hobby).
With the 2020 Australian Open Tennis Grand Slam drawing to a close, let’s look back on an insightful post-match interview with the tennis player, Novak Djokovic, after his semi-finals match with Roger Federer on 30 January 2020:
Jim Courier (Interviewer): “What have you taken from your experiences earlier from your career that now feels more natural? What were you missing earlier that you have now, just from a mental standpoint, to be able to play the way that you play in the finals?”
Novak Djokovic: “Patience. When you’re young, you want everything right away. And there is no waiting… One thing that I was probably lacking a little bit when I was younger was patience and just trusting the process a little bit more. At times, I was rushing a little bit too much and getting frustrated about details and small things in life. But that’s how you learn. You can’t really be a perfect human being and a tennis player from a very young age… which is why we enjoy this beautiful thing called life.”
P.s. But tonight, we’re going for Team Thiem 🎾🎾🎾