I recently came across this and decided to post it. It was my last column as Chairman of the Elder Law Section of the North Carolina Bar Association for the section publication Gray Matters. I meant it to be advice to newer attorneys. But it pretty well sums up my approach to law practice. Published June 2014.
As I write this column I have just shy of three weeks to go as section Chair. It has been fun and it has been an honor. It has also been my second “go ‘round” of the job. I therefore think it highly unlikely I’ll hold any other official position with the Elder and Special Needs Law section.
But that’s OK. We have a long custom of allowing former section chairs to weigh in. Or as I prefer to put it, “I can show up at the meetings, break some furniture, and go home.” Soon the former chairs’ society will outnumber the section council!
One of my goals as section chair was to try and open things up for “new blood.” In that regard, I think we did a good job . . . there are all sorts of good folks in place to be leaders of our little corner of the bar for years to come.
Here are a few random thoughts and suggestions, especially for those in the earlier stages of a career.
Running counter to just about every expert out there, I can’t say that I divide my life into “work” and “other.” I am not an elder law attorney by day, and a spouse/father/friend by night. I am what I am, which involves many parts. In some sense I am always “on” and thinking about various work-related issues. On the other hand, various matters that aren’t career-related are never far off my screen. I may show up late and leave early, but I may also work all weekend. I can do that because I run my own firm. Of course, it also occurred to me that I also work harder than I ever did as a young associate.
The types of law we deal with are difficult (Medicaid, tax, trusts, and so on). So what? Learn it. Then master it. Make it part of you. Be grateful it is difficult; that’s why you don’t have much competition. Anyone reading this silly column can be a guru. Anyone. You just have to be willing to work at it. Hard.
Nothing will happen if you don’t show up. And show up. And show up.
Poke the Box
One of my favorite authors and thinkers, Seth Godin, recently wrote a short little book called Poke the Box. I have ordered it for everyone who works with me, both here in North Carolina and Georgia. Get it.
A couple of threads run through Seth’s book. Be curious. Don’t just take things at face value. Wonder why something couldn’t be done a bit differently, then try it (“poke the box”). After you’ve handled the mastery thing (see above), make a habit of thinking “outside the box.” The difference between a good competent journeyman attorney and a master is (i) the amount of work expended mastering and (ii) the amount of time thinking outside the box.
Develop a Sense of Humor
The difference between a master getting by and a master with a big book of business is a sense of humor. Maybe that comes from spending time outside the box and developing a keen sense of irony. Don’t ever take yourself too seriously. And no matter how hard you worked, don’t forget that other people made it possible for you to get where you are.
Especially if you’re a newbie. One of the best ways to learn the law and pick up some interesting strategies is by hanging out with folks who do the same thing. One of the easiest ways to hang out with folks who do the same things is to get involved. With our NCBA section. With NAELA. With some group in your community (and meeting other related professionals).
Also, as I mentioned above, you got to where you are because of the efforts of other people. Getting involved is a way to pay it forward.
Keep in mind, no one is going to call you and ask, “Will you get please involved?” You’ll need to make that happen. Poke the box.
This may be most important. It occurred to me that many of my best friends are members of the North Carolina Elder Law section. Some of us will be great friends and confidants for the rest of our lives. You know who you are. I wouldn’t trade you for anything.