Projecting Confidence Is Fundamental to Career Success

April 10, 2014Articles The Legal Intelligencer

At long last, spring has arrived. With Philadelphia's second-snowiest winter finally behind us, it is time to set our warm weather routines in motion. For those into golf, that means dusting off the spikes and hitting the links; others who are into gardening may be laying down mulch; and still others who are already looking ahead to summer may be prepping their shore houses and working on their beach figures.

To me, spring means baseball season. Another year of watching the Phillies, going to games and competing in fantasy baseball. As baseball is my favorite sport, I naturally draw on the game for inspiration in my own life. To me, a successful lawyer is like an ace pitcher on a baseball team: a proven winner who is focused, strategic and, above all, reliable. For a pitcher to become an ace, however, he or she must develop a repertoire that features challenging pitches capable of getting batters out.

For example, Randy Johnson established himself as an ace by having a 100 mph fastball, which he complemented with a deceptive slider that constantly fooled hitters. Mariano Rivera, while a closer, was often considered the ace pitcher for the Yankees, and was known for his signature cut fastball. Roy Halladay was known for commanding a variety of pitches, all of which he used to establish himself as the ace for the Blue Jays and Phillies for years.

In a similar way, lawyers combine a variety of skills to develop a successful practice. Strong writing, research and analytical abilities, combined with a particular focus on a certain area of the law, are some of the most important elements for a rewarding legal career. As with pitchers, some lawyers' practices involve a more complex set of skills than others, which can often yield great financial benefits. Whereas some of the best pitchers have meticulously crafted and refined their arsenal of pitches over a long career, successful attorneys have often developed their legal skills over many years and carefully chosen their areas of concentration to build a rewarding practice.

But young lawyers, who do not have the same luxury of time or experience, could actually damage their careers by attempting to emulate more senior lawyers too quickly. A novice pitcher who has never faced a live batter would end up getting shelled if he or she attempted to mimic Rivera's cutter. Similarly, a young lawyer cannot hope to master the abilities of a more successful lawyer overnight. Thus, it is important to focus on the fundamentals.

Every ace pitcher has a fundamental attribute: the ability to get a batter out. Whether it is with flashy strikeouts or ground balls, getting batters out consistently is what defines a successful pitcher.

The fundamental attribute in every successful lawyer is the ability to project confidence. Whether arguing before a judge, strategizing with a client or negotiating the terms of a deal, a lawyer's role is to take a position and advocate for that position. Such advocacy is impossible without the lawyer's ability to project confidence in that position. If you do not believe in what you are saying, no one else will either.

At the very beginning of my legal career, I was fortunate to receive this great advice from a mentor. I was a summer associate at a large firm and I was sitting down for my midsummer review. Of course, I was nervous, believing that the rest of my career would be defined by this one review. Looking back, there is actually some truth to that belief.

The partner across the table from me in my review started in typical fashion, calming my nerves by reading the positive comments that various attorneys with whom I had worked had written about me. Then came the constructive criticism, which focused on my very first assignment as a summer associate.

I had been tasked with drafting a research memo on the Daubert standard for the head of the firm's mass tort practice group. The mass tort partner walked me through the facts of the case and the legal issues the client was facing. From there, I researched the applicable case law, analyzed the facts and drafted my memo. Afterward, I met with him again to hand in my memo and explain my analysis. While I reached a conclusion in my memo ("probably yes"), I actively avoided doing so in discussing the memo with this partner.

Fearing that I might have missed something, I hedged at every opportunity. When I discussed my conclusion, rather than being assertive, I mentioned nearly every other possible conclusion that could be reached as alternative possibilities for the client to consider. I also detailed the sources that I researched, explaining that there could be other sources that I did not look into, which could affect the conclusion as well. I presented my research as someone afraid to be wrong.

The partner conducting my midsummer review explained that this was an area that I needed to improve. Where I had thought I was helping the mass tort partner by pointing out the various weaknesses in my memo, my research and my conclusion, I had actually been doing him a great disservice.

This reviewing partner reminded me that the chair of the mass tort group was not actually all-knowing, and that I was the one who read the case law and took the time to consider all of the issues. He said I was capable of reaching an appropriate conclusion. Most importantly, however, he told me that the fundamental component of a successful lawyer is the ability to project confidence.

My mentor explained that I needed to take a position and project confidence when articulating that position or no one would take any value from my work. I have since found this to be true in every aspect of being a lawyer.

We often take our interactions with others for granted, yet they can mean a world of difference in the early stages of our careers. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. As a lawyer, you need people to believe in your ability to solve their problems.

Whether you are explaining an assignment to a supervising attorney, convincing a client of a particular case strategy, negotiating a contract, networking with potential business contacts or advocating before the court, it is necessary to project confidence during any interactions you have as a lawyer. You are a professional, and you need to act like it.

The advice I received from my mentor while I was a summer associate has influenced everything I do as an attorney. My writing is now better advocacy; I am better able to persuade and influence others; and, most importantly for a young lawyer, people take me seriously and my work is credible and reliable.

As you look to develop a successful career in this profession, remember to focus on your fundamentals. For a pitcher to develop into an ace, he or she must first learn to get a batter out. Similarly, your ability to take a position and project confidence is fundamental to your success in the legal profession, and something on which to focus during any interaction you have as a lawyer.

"Reprinted with permission from the April 10 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2014 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved."