My good friend Paul McCullum was sworn in today by none other than the Chief Judge of the Central District Bankruptcy Courts, the Honorable Sheri Bluebond. His family flew over from Indiana to watch him take the oath. It was a tremendous occasion and I was honored to be invited. The best part was Judge Bluebond’s moving pre-Oath “advice to new lawyers” which contains sage advice for practitioners of all seasons. With her permission, I am happy to share:
Notwithstanding all the lawyer jokes you’ve heard, the practice of law is still a noble profession – and one that will challenge you on so many levels. To excel in this profession, you need a variety of skills. Others may have their own lists, but I’ve given it some thought and here are the qualities that I think will be among the most important for your future success:
–Integrity: The importance of integrity cannot be overstated. Particularly in a relatively small practice area like bankruptcy where everyone knows everyone else, pay particular attention to the reputation that you establish for yourself. If people know you to be honest and forthright and true to your word, it will be far easier for you to conduct business. People (and judges, who are people too) will give you the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, if people know you that you are comfortable playing fast and loose with the truth, even the smallest of accomplishments will be immeasurably harder.
And in order to maintain your integrity, it would be a good idea to learn how to say “no” and mean it. Not only to the client who wants you to advance an argument that isn’t well founded in law or fact or doesn’t pass the giggle test, but also to the partner who hasn’t read the cases or done the factual investigation and thinks a particular argument will fly that your gut tells you is misguided. You’ll be the one who’ll end up with egg on your face when you let someone else talk you into doing something that is ill-advised. So learn how to stand your ground.
–Intellectual curiosity: Much about the practice of law will be mind-numbing unless you genuinely enjoy learning new things and solving intellectual puzzles. Moreover, unless you are willing to devote the energy necessary to correctly untie the legal knots that clients find themselves in, you will be forever tempted to take the shortcut or ignore or gloss over important issues that may at first blush appear trivial but can turn out to be the difference between obtaining the result your client needs and committing malpractice.
–A good sense of humor: Things will not always turn out the way you might hope. If you can’t have a laugh now and then — even though sometimes it’s that kind of a giggle you can’t help doing at a funeral — life can become dreary indeed. But be careful who’s watching while you’re laughing. However funny something may seem to you, clients may often fail to see the humor in their predicaments.
–Stamina: Stay healthy. Get enough sleep when you can. Eat right. And exercise. Visit your doctor regularly. Some cases will feel like a sprint. Others will feel like a marathon – or a series of marathons. You need to be able to go the distance.
–Good organizational skills: Knowing what you have to do, and when you have to have it done by, will reduce your stress levels. Make sure you have some system for keeping track of everything you need to do, both personally and professionally. You’ll have enough on your plate without having to worry about whether or not you’ve remembered everything that’s supposed to be on your plate.
–Good written and oral advocacy skills: Put your best foot forward. Clients, opposing counsel, partners in your firm, judges — they will all judge you based on how well you write and how well you speak. If you have trouble with either of these, practice, and take training courses if necessary.
Those are some of the things you’ll need to succeed in your career, but what good is career success if the rest of your life sucks – or there is no “rest of your life?” You don’t want to wake up in 10 or 20 years and wonder what happened to you. You need to take good care of your clients, but you need to make time for yourself too. You know what they say on the airplane — when the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling, you have to put on your own mask first or you won’t be in any shape to help anyone else.
And don’t forget to check in with yourself now and then – you need to stop periodically and evaluate how your life or your career is going, decide whether you’re satisfied with what you see and, if not, make a change. Hopefully, you will be fortunate enough to find great coworkers and mentors, but, at the end of the day, only you are in charge of your own life. You are the master of your own destiny and career. You are the architect of your own life. Don’t abdicate that responsibility to anyone else. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans, so remember to peek over the blinders now and then and check out the scenery. Make sure you like what you see.
Listen to yourself.
Follow your heart. It won’t steer you wrong.