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What Determines Success as an Attorney More than Academics or Firm?

published July 29, 2021

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This article will tell you why your family surroundings and social background play a major role in your success in a law firm.

 


Most lawyers think that if they go to excellent law schools and start their profession in a great legal firm right out of law schools, it automatically means that they have made it and will be successful in their careers. But I have seen too many lawyers like this go nowhere with their careers. That isn't the only thing that makes lawyers. You can have every advantage globally, but none of this really matters if you don't have values and support to encourage you to be happy and satisfied in your legal work.


Personal Relationships Affect Our Happiness


My Story


When I was young, maybe 18, I lived with my father and his soon-to-be ex-wife while they were going through a divorce. He was living in the basement, and I was living upstairs in the house with her and her son and a daughter, none of whom talked to me. The situation was awful as I had to pass them in the kitchen and halls every day. I felt like an outcast in a place I was supposed to call home, which was not pleasant for me as a high schooler at all.

I was having a conversation about the situation with my father, and he seemed very depressed about his life. He was unhappy with the divorce (and the fact that it was his second one). He felt unsuccessful, not having accomplished as much as his Harvard schoolmates, and he felt like an overall failure. I was surprised at how unhappy he was when he looked at himself compared to peers around him. He had many things going for him; he enjoyed writing, drawing, even his job. But he allowed others and what they expected of themselves to influence his happiness. He didn't feel like he merited other's approval. A lot of that came from the environment that he had been in.

College or law school can also uncover this. Your curriculum is not going to differ that much from one law school to another. What really differs is the expectation and support of those around you. They are the reason to go to the best school, get hired as lawyers at the top legal firms, and do your best. If you're among people with high hopes and demands for themselves, you will also desire higher success to fit in with them. You will be trying hard to do better, setting higher goals and intentions for yourself as attorneys.

My peers influenced the choices I made about college, law school, or legal firms. I picked up the things they thought were important and the aspirations they had for themselves and held myself to the same standard. If you're around people with high hopes and expectations, you're going to pick those up for yourself. That's often the reason to try to be part of the best law firms and schools. If you get into the best law school or firm, it will help you because you will be a law student and lawyer with high standards.


The Role Relationships Play in Our Career and Happiness

 

The Story Of My Asphalt Business


When I was younger, I had an asphalt business in Detroit. One of the problems I had to solve was finding workers. There were types of people I could hire and others that I couldn't. When I started, the most obvious people to hire were kids I knew. I would go to parties on Friday nights and over the weekend, and I'd always find someone to do the work the next morning. The job was arduous with long hours because we did many parking lots with nowhere to hide from the sun. It was common for workers to quit or disappear after one day. I would have to go to parties again the next day and look again.

The problem was that my peers from my social circle, middle to upper-middle class, has no interest in working manually because that wasn't viewed as something appealing by those around them.


Lessons I Learnt


After a few months like that, I learned that the best place to get human resources was in working-class neighborhoods where people were willing to do the work. Their group appreciated that kind of work. They would be ready for work each day, without any complaints, happy with a smile on their faces. They felt like they can accomplish something in work and those around them thought this was a great opportunity because it was a good job that paid more than sufficiently. Their close ones supported them, and they expected that this is an excellent opportunity, not something temporary.

I realized early that I was much better off hiring people from a background where people around them supported them in work and believed in the work rather than hiring someone, not from this background. Most of us want to feel loved and seen in a positive light by others. And how others see us determines how we see ourselves.


Importance of Social Status and Values for Lawyers


Over the past 25 years, I've noticed that one of the most competitive and demanding law companies, Cravath Swaine & Moore, employed many middle-class people from universities, such as the University of Iowa. The company was good enough to hire Harvard or Yale alumni, but they chose lawyers from blue-collar backgrounds.

One of the main factors is that lawyers with such a background consider it a great opportunity to work for such a renowned law firm. They are willing to work really hard to keep it because people close to them think highly of them because of this work. Law students from top and ivy league schools often have a sense of superiority, and working hard is beneath them, allowing them to quit more easily.

Lawyers that graduated from these better law schools consider becoming a professor or working in a government more prestigious than working in a big law firm because those around them also think so. They are usually not happy in law firms because they do not feel their peers approve of this work.

Many successful lawyers also do a lot of things to prove something to their parents. We often do not realize our values without having them presented to us by others, most often parents. They ingrain principles and expectations in us from an early age which affect us our whole lives. By trial and error, we figure out when they approve of us so we can feel worthy. We form our identity around that, so our environment is important for what we do in life.

Success means something very different to everyone because it is based on their core principles. It is happy family life; for others, a great career, earning a lot of money or, having some social status. Unhappiness often comes when we are different from the person we consider successful based on our inner value system. When we do not accomplish what we think others expect of us, we may feel insufficient, unhappy, and often depressed.


(Not) Learning How to Cope


When you feel insufficient or depressed because you are not living up to the value system others have for you, how can you cope? There are many different ways, some more healthy than others.

I had a best friend in high school who came from a wealthy background. His father and grandfather were valued builders, while his brother was brilliant and went to a great university. This friend could go to private competitive schools where everyone was doing amazing things, and he felt unsuccessful. Instead of trying to live up to the expectations he and those around him set for himself, he decided to drown the feelings of not being enough in alcohol. That, of course, negatively affected his academics and how everyone, including himself, viewed him, which caused him to drink even more. This downward spiral resulted in him dying from alcoholism, and it was all because he couldn't reach the bar he set for himself. If his environment and morals allowed him to set a lower bar, he could have been happy and alive.

He was not the only one in my life who drank for being unable to reach and meet the goals other had set for them. I had a perfect girlfriend in her career, had a wonderful child she loved and took great care of, had enough money and power to feel good about her in her life. However, she came from a strict Mormon family where the main goal was to go to church, get married, and have kids. She didn't live up to these principles and drank because she wanted to tune out her feelings of not being what she was meant to be.

They were both in very different situations but shared feelings of not living up to the expectations they and others had for them, felt sorry for themselves, and chose to drink to cope. She eventually went back to church, back to her relatives, stopped drinking, and became happy. Still, when she wasn't in correspondence with her value system, she felt terrible even though others would consider her victorious.


Our Value System and Our Future


Are you living under someone else's value system? Most of us have been impacted by the value systems of our social groups and what those groups think is important. We have these beliefs and expectations for ourselves to determine how hard we try, view ourselves, and how happy or unhappy we are.

When I started hiring middle-class workers for my asphalt business, I noticed that they seemed happier and smiled more at work. They were thankful for the opportunity and didn't care about much else. They didn't look for issues or problems with what they were doing because they were doing something good in the eyes of their close ones and under their value system. They had respectable jobs that paid good money so that they could take care of their families.

My stepbrother, for instance, left high school at 16 after getting his GED to become part of the Navy. He served a few years and then returned to attend college. He was able to get into a good university but only lasted two years. Despite this, he got a good job in accounting in a big firm and worked his way up to become a successful executive with a wonderful family and a nice house. He was pleased with his life because he achieved more than he or his peers expected of him.


The Risk of Not Living up to Your Family's Expectations


The expectations and standards families set for their children can drive almost anyone crazy. Whether it is following a religious practice, having kids, working in a certain firm or field, or having a certain amount of money, not being able to fulfill the assumptions your parents have for you can often lead people to stop talking to their close ones all together to avoid feeling shame.

One of the things I regularly mention is that everyone who wants and tries hard enough can succeed as a lawyer. Our world, or at least our western society, is based on meritocracy, so you can end up on the top if you try hard enough. You can choose whatever you want with your life, and many people choose a university to get ahead. Getting to these universities is also based on merit - the same test for everyone. It is created equal. When the standardization process shows that the test discriminates against some people, the test makers quickly change it to secure equal opportunity for everyone. Firms also incorporate measure after measure to avoid discriminating against anyone to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity for success.

However, it also gives people full responsibility for their own success and happiness. And failure if they do not manage to triumph in whatever it is their value system tells them. This leaves many people miserable, even depressed, if they cannot find victory when they have access to the same education and employment as those who manage to do more with their lives. They may want to blame the system for the failure, politicians, large companies, university leaders. But the truth is, if you want to succeed, you have to stop blaming others and start taking responsibility yourself.

Having everything others consider essential for happiness doesn't automatically mean that person is happy. Steve Bing, for instance, had everything people can dream of - went to the most prestigious private academy, inherited millions of dollars, dated and had children with some of the most beautiful women of his era, was friends with other famous people. He was also active with charity, and people around him liked him. Still, he had an alcohol and drug problem and ended up committing suicide because he had depression.

You might be asking yourself, "How can someone who has so many positive things going for him be so depressed and unhappy?" If you are not living by or fulfilling the principles you and your family believe in, it doesn't matter how much money and power you have. The problem with not living up to expectations we think others have for us is that they often make us feel not deserving of love. As social creatures, we need to feel loved and approved by our core group, so feeling not deserving of that can suck out the happiness of anyone regardless of how much money, fame, or accomplishment they have.

Another example of how relatives and their cultural beliefs can influence lives comes from my experience in my law company. Still, I noticed it also when I worked as a lawyer. An employee complained that her husband, a lawyer, left a high-paying job with a big firm to start his own law practice. He explained that he couldn't work for someone else for longer than necessary as a Persian guy. This talk made me remember that all the Persian lawyers I knew quit law firms after just a few years to start their own practice and eventually started a business in real estate or related professions. Many immigrants in Los Angeles from Iran are well-known for their business triumph. This observation was strengthened when I heard the same explanation as my employee's husband had given. It was from another attorney not long after that conversation. A young Persian attorney told me he wasn't looking for a long-term position because no Persian guy would want to work for anyone else for a long time.

It is, of course, a generalization, and some Persian people choose a different path, but it is something I noticed several times. And it illustrates how relatives and cultural values ingrained in us can direct us in how we make decisions and consider success and happiness.

But is it always the best thing? What if your personality or skillset guides you to choose a path different than what your parents want for you? What if you want to become a doctor, artist, or teacher in a bloodline full of lawyers? Chances are you will choose the thing your family wants for you. You want to feel approved and loved by the people closest to you, and doing something they do not approve of could jeopardize that.

That is why we often see kids realizing the dreams of their parents. Many parents had a dream career they couldn't achieve whose kids went on to be exactly that. Lawyers, doctors, actors, athletes, the list goes on and on. When parents have a certain view of what success and happiness mean, they bring their kids up to have this same viewpoint.

My father flunked out of law school, and I finished law school and became a lawyer. Is it a coincidence? Or maybe my attempt to try to live up to what my relatives expected of me?


Are We Doomed to Repeat Everything Our Families Are Doing?


The family and environment we grow up in are essential for creating what we consider happiness and success. Being happy depends on what those close to us think because they form how we feel about ourselves. Our communities help create the principles we have for ourselves, so depending on where you live and what people you spend the most time with, you have different expectations, goals, and values for yourself.

If you grew up in a poor neighborhood, you might be pushed to become an athlete or musician to be "something." These decisions would be frowned upon in a wealthy neighborhood because you could only become a lawyer or doctor happy and victorious.

I meet countless lawyers and other legal professionals daily who managed to get through law school and really want to make it in law firms, but they will never be happy there. Their viewpoint is just too different from the one which makes lawyers. Their value system doesn't correspond with how the legal profession system and law practice work.

But it is not just lawyers; many different people are unhappy because what they do in life doesn't correspond with what those close to them think they should be doing. And if you have people with a completely different set of values around you, it will also not make you happy because you will be reminded that you are not the person you should be.

But it doesn't have to be final. Not all kids from troubled families and poor environments are doomed to repeat the cycle. I grew up in an environment with a lot of problems. My life was filled with divorce, stepfamilies, substance abuse, stress—all the usual stuff. I surrounded myself with friends who had similar issues for years before processing and solving the issues and relationships I had. But after that, I was suddenly able to create better values to live by for myself. How? I surrounded myself and created relationships with those who held themselves to higher standards in their life. Law school can also do a lot because when you study and expose yourself to different ideas, you can uncover different value systems and find happiness in a place where you wouldn't look before. You are an individual, so you should be able to create happiness for your life yourself.

The question we all ask ourselves is, "Am I worthy of love by myself and others?" If you feel like the answer is no, you may be a victim of the voices in your head telling you how to live your life. And it is not fair to constantly have to listen to everyone else's idea of what should make you happy.

You should really look into yourself and find what happiness means to you. You should find your personal happiness and success and create a value system that you will be happy with. It will probably overlap with the beliefs your close ones ingrained in you, but it shouldn't be just about what they think.

See also:
 

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