Lessons in Humility and Managing Expectations
by James Ray
“Congratulations, your first job here is to earn the respect of those around you.” I’ll never forget those words. They were spoken to me shortly after making the football team at the University of Texas at Austin by Duane Akina, defensive back coach and one of the toughest, most tenacious and well-respected individuals I have ever known. It was immediately clear that, as a walk-on, respect did not come as a matter of right. It had to be earned. The way to earn that respect was to know your role and do your best in that role to help the team win. Earning the respect of peers, colleagues, co-workers and friends is also my goal as a new lawyer. Thankfully, I have some experience as the low person on the totem pole in a hyper-competitive environment where everyone is talented, motivated and fearless.
We all have our reasons for becoming lawyers. Not once, however, have I heard someone say “I love reviewing documents. I’m going to law school to make that dream a reality!” Most of us, I think, visualize making a difference by passionately arguing before the Supreme Court, delivering a profound closing argument filled with drama, or looking someone in the eyes and letting them know that you will fight like crazy to help them through life’s most difficult circumstances. Apparently, those privileges do not fall out of the sky the day you earn your law license. Hopefully, they will come after putting in the time, hard work and dedication necessary to earn the respect and trust of those around you.
Much like a walk-on spends many practices on the scout team without seeing the field, the young lawyer may also spend hours, days and weeks reviewing documents, putting together trial binders and researching discrete issues—for which there may be no answer—all without ever meeting a client or appearing in court. Self-sacrifice and patience with a focus on being part of something greater than yourself were essential to survive as a walk-on. For the lawyer, providing the best legal representation for each and every client must be of paramount importance, irrespective of personal ego.
Every day at practice we were told by our coaches to ask ourselves “How can I help the team win?” One of our roles was to help make our teammates better tacklers through a drill called “the pits.” Always a tacklee and never a tackler, the walk-on would line up 20 feet away from the tackler and each player would run full speed at one another leading to a serious collision, popping pads, mild concussions, etc. As much fun as it was to go toe-to-toe on a daily basis with athletes that were all bigger, faster and stronger than us, the reward and personal satisfaction came in knowing that we were doing our part to help the team win.
I have yet to see two associates sprinting at each other in the hallways, but there are other important (and less painful) roles young lawyers can play. It may not be delivering the game changing cross examination in the trial of the century, but well-researched and reasoned memoranda can be just as crucial to victory. I practiced for several years before finally getting playing time my senior year. In my senior year, however, I was part of a team that won a national championship. That experience taught me that you do not need to be in the spotlight or receive constant adulation to feel a sense of pride about your work. Back then, our coaches and teammates helped us realize that any contribution to the team effort, no matter how big or small, is meaningful. Today, we look to more experienced lawyers to play the coach’s role and provide advice and examples of how to practice.
Ultimately, nothing else matters if we do not enjoy what we do. The weekly exhilaration of 100,000+ cheering fans made it easy to appreciate the privilege we had earned as walk-ons. It is probable that no one will run into our offices screaming, wearing face-paint and starting the wave when we draft our next memo or motion. Confetti cannons will not fire off when our clients win a judgment or close a huge deal. The reward will come in knowing that someone respects and trusts us enough to ask for our help with protecting their business, their livelihood and their family. That is a privilege to treasure and to get excited about.
James Ray, an associate at Munsch, Hardt, Kopf, and Harr, P.C., practices general commercial litigation with an emphasis on energy and environmental issues, business disputes and complex commercial matters. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.