Many say that lawyers, by definition, are risk adverse. Numerous blogs and articles have been written about the nature of those who become lawyers and lawyers’ general aversion to risk. Very few of us can claim the courage of Atticus Finch, who took on the defense of Tom Robinson even though his career and family were put at risk for doing so. In his words: “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It's knowing you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”
For most of my life and career, I was no exception to the basic risk-averse rule. I took a straight educational path set for me by my parents to become a lawyer at a large regional law firm. I can tell pitchy stories about being a precocious child, but the truth is that I was a good student with strong verbal communication skills. The most credit I could take for my legal career was that I did well in school and had the ability to work for long stretches of time. Most importantly, up until recently, I was still on the path that had been set for me. I followed the personal and professional examples set for me by my senior partners—and life on this path was good. No risks were required for this good life.
Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got to Do With It exemplifies an event that changed my life and the course of my career. Consider these lyrics:
“What’s love got to do, got to do with it
What’s love but a sweet old fashioned notion
What’s love got to do, got to do with it
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?”
You see, I fell in love with a man who did not love me back and my heart got broken. I took a risk, I failed, and I got hurt. No great drama here except in my head and my heart. After this relationship ended, I moped for a few months with a sore heart. After a time, I brushed myself off, and life went on—but it did not go back.
After this experience with heartbreak, I felt strong enough to take risks professionally. I stepped out of my comfort zone. I took on more and more projects and activities that were “not billable” (in the famous words of private practice lawyers). But I didn’t just step out my comfort zone a little; I took on immense, time-consuming projects unlike anything I had done before, and they completely shifted the path of my well-ordered and successful career. In the legal world, any activity that takes time away from billing – even service, vacations, illness, and family – impacts the bottom line. And for many of us, the bottom line is our measure of success as lawyers.
So, the very personal experience of having my heart broken gave me the courage to take professional, experiential risks. I tell this story not because this experience is unique, but because the experience shifted my perspective. I took a risk, and I lost. But most importantly, I learned that I could survive failure. And, as a result, risk taking became easier. As the legal profession and all of its stakeholders (law schools, bar associations, service providers, law students, and lawyers) struggle with the brave new legal world, I challenge all of you to not only consider What’s Love Got to Do With It, but also to look for ways to shift your perspective so you can see what is possible and what you are capable of as both a professional and as an individual person. Like Atticus, we all need to have the courage to try, but we might just win even if the odds are stacked against us.