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Guest Commentary: Savoring the good times can breed more success

By MARC GUSTAFSON, Special to Lawyers Weekly

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I just hung up the phone with a client who couldn’t thank me enough for possibly saving him his job. Instead of taking the time to appreciate his compliment, within minutes I was already stressing about my next call to an attorney with whom I knew I would have a difficult conversation.

Maybe it was the sun outside my window, the beautiful weekend ahead or the third Diet Coke of the day, but something cued me to stop and savor the compliments my client had just extended me.

This moment reminded me of a call a few weeks ago to a local attorney in which I complimented him on a recent successful result. He seemed surprised that I had acknowledged his victory, seeing as we are present adversaries.

He thanked me and remarked that too often lawyers do not commend each other for a job well done. I have to admit, I had never really thought about it, but I guess he is right.

Both individually and collectively, I believe lawyers (like all professionals) should revel in our successes. Note this does not mean gloat, but we should be happy for ourselves when we succeed and equally happy for others when they do also.

This idea brought me back to a recent ski trip. The snow was fresh, the skiing was great, and my group was well matched. A friend of mine who played college baseball and is known to be quietly competitive said at one point of the trip, “I think skiing is one of the few places where we earnestly root for others”.

That got me to thinking, and I think he’s right. On the golf course, aren’t we secretly hoping that our playing partner will miss that birdie putt even if it will add money to our pocket? And when we’re pulling for another ACC team against an out-of-conference opponent, aren’t we really hoping Duke – I mean that other ACC team – will somehow lose?

But in skiing, the cheers from the chairlift can sometimes be just as enthusiastic as those from the person skiing down the mountain, especially when the turns are smooth and the snow is light. After my friend’s comment on our ski trip, I found myself watching others and laughing or smiling at the fun they were having.

Isn’t this how we should practice law? Enjoying our own successes but cheering on the efforts and relishing in the joys of those around us.

I believe that the adversarial nature of the legal profession, where there is generally perceived to be a winner and a loser, creates the somewhat negative environment among us. But even when one party comes out ahead, there is still room to genuinely appreciate the good work of the prevailing party.

In addition to creating a more pleasant profession, there may be some practical benefits from doing so as well.

Chip Heath and Dan Heath discussed a similar point in their recent New York Times best-seller Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. In Switch, the authors discuss “bright spots” and suggest we analyze a problem not by looking at what is going wrong, but by figuring out what is going right and building on that.

After all, isn’t it more fun figuring out what is going right and copying it a whole lot more fun (and more effective) than obsessing over what is going wrong? The key is to convince our logical minds to that there are powerful lessons to be learned by observing successes that can then be replicated over and over.

• Develop a best practices portfolio and make it your own. As much as we may hate to admit it, a person’s success likely bears some relationship to his or her good work. So instead of avoiding acknowledging their success, good practitioners will take note of the legal theory, strategy or argument put forward and adopt it for our own personal use. Taking the time to acknowledge success pays off in additional insight from the person responsible for the success.

• The devil isn’t always in the details. When others succeed, I am sure they would be the first to admit it wasn’t because of some small detail or some finely tuned argument but because they stayed focused on the real issue at hand. If we can focus on the causes of successes, we may be more likely to understand and appreciate the bigger picture and not get lost in the details that so often sidetrack our own endeavors.

• Aspire to succeed. Use the success of others to challenge yourself to join them. Rather than criticizing or justifying the successes of others, even if such criticism is warranted, aspire to succeed yourself. It has been my experience that clients appreciate being around attorneys who are positive and focus on successes and not those who dwell on failures.

• Do not overweight failures. Studies have shown that the pain of a loss is 2 ½  times greater than the pleasure of an equal reward. For example, $100 lost in the stock market results in 2 ½  times more negative feelings than the positive feelings associated with $100 gained. It is not likely that we will be able to alter these feelings, but by knowing we will not account for our successes and our failures equally, we can adjust our decision-making process accordingly.   

• Learn from successes that may hide smaller failures. Finally, spare yourself the pain. In my short career, it has not taken me long to realize that the path to success is not a straight line. It is often fraught with failures and impediments. Observing and following another’s successful practices may spare us learning some of life’s lessons the hard way. Rather than avoiding asking another lawyer about his or her successful experience, seek it out because it will likely make you a happier and better lawyer.

Editor’s note: Gustafson is an attorney with Essex Richards in Charlotte. His practice focuses on general, commercial and employment litigation. He also counsels small businesses on lending, corporate and real estate matters.

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