Keeping Your Eye on the (Other) Prize

Last month, we considered how to best keep an eye on the prize sought by the client.  After all, each of us wants to accomplish what the client seeks.  Toward that end, I suggested that you listen deeply to the client and stay connected to the client as the representation proceeds.  Also, be curious and open to new possibilities for the eventual outcome of the dispute.

In my experience, the prize sought by the client is not the only prize.  The other prize is how you personally are doing in the course of the representation.  What is your mood, day to day?  Moods are like the weather, always changing.  Yet, there often is a prevailing mood – for example, being contented, cheerful, optimistic, or angry, resentful, exhausted.  In other words, are you satisfied with how your professional role blends with your personal commitments and goals?  Do you have time for the life you want to live?

Keeping your eye on more than one prize can be understood in a story shared by a friend last week.  “Bill” has a family cabin with a leaky roof.  He asked his two sons to help him repair the roof.  In turn, his sons asked a friend to help out, as he had re-roofed several houses and knew how to do it.  The shingles were ordered and delivered, and the work began.  Over the course of the week-end, the four men worked well together and they made good progress with the project.  However, toward the end, they came to realize that they did not have enough shingles and some of the shingles did not match.  Bill’s sons felt bad.  Their friend felt even worse because he had ordered the shingles and it was his mistake.  The week-end concluded with the off-color shingles used in a relatively inconspicuous part of the roof.  A tarp was placed over the unfinished section of the roof.

Bill explained that although he wanted a weather-tight roof on the cabin, he also wanted the time spent working together to be a positive experience.  For Bill, time with his sons and their friend was an even greater prize than a leak-free roof.  The fact that the roof had some mismatched shingles and that the project was not finished in a single week-end was unimportant.  Bill explained all of this to his sons and their friend.  It turned out that the work project was a teaching moment.

Oftentimes, we lawyers are so focused on the outcome, we ignore how we re doing in the course of our day-to-day work as lawyers.  More broadly stated, many of us get lost in the metric of success established by others and ignore our own conditions of satisfaction for the life we are living.  For some, self-worth is defined by the outcome of the representation.  If a client becomes frustrated with the outcome of litigation, we see ourselves as failures.  For others, we are failures if we fail to satisfy the metrics of our law firm with respect to billable hours, realization rates, or origination credits.  And just as damaging, others of us waste ourselves in our efforts to meet or exceed all expectations all of the time.  While others may see us as successful, and reward us accordingly, we are often dissatisfied and angry because it seems we have little or no time for ourselves and the life we want to live.

From where I stand, satisfaction in life comes from keeping an eye on the prize sought by the client while also prizing how we are doing day to day.  From time to time, we all fail in meeting an objective.  The problem arises when we define ourselves by the outcome and come to know ourselves as failures. We cannot assure outcome.  There are simply too many variables beyond our control.  What we can do is come to see ourselves as more than the outcome of our efforts.  Cultivating a sense of self independent from outcome is a challenge and an important prize in itself.  For now, I encourage you to keep an eye on the prize sought by the client, without losing sight of yourself as the other important prize.