Grounding - Sailboat keel

Today we are diving into the Five Factors I’ve identified as characteristics of successful lawyers.

(For the non-lawyers here, some good news, these success principles do not require a JD. I believe these characteristics are found in successful people of all backgrounds.)

The first factor, or distinguishing characteristic, of successful lawyers (and non-lawyers), is that they are grounded.

What do I mean by that?

The Merriam Webster English Learner’s Dictionary defines the adjective “grounded” as “used to describe a person who is sensible and has a good understanding of what is really important in life.”

That’s a pretty good definition.

For our discussion of success, however, grounded means more than “sensible,” which perhaps conjures up images of an older Buick: solid, stable, dependable. Those are all good things and common characteristics of many successful people, but grounded can also mean something deeper: a connection to and understanding of the self.

Warren Bennis was one of the great thought leaders on the topic of leadership. He observed “Leaders are people who are able to express themselves fully … they know who they are, what their strengths and weakness are, and how to fully deploy their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses.” In other words, knowing who you are and, importantly, knowing who you are not.

Bennis’ observation about leaders holds about successful lawyers. The most successful lawyers I’ve had the privilege of working for, with, against and around over the past nearly twenty years all have an understanding of the “self.” They know who they are (whether you like their “self” or not.) As a federal judge in my jurisdiction once noted, they have cultivated their personality and who they are as professionals.

But there are other dimensions of grounding as well.

Successful lawyers have a grounding in the law and a deep understanding of the substance in their area of expertise. In this regard, I believe grounding also can be used interchangeably with “competence.” The words “fundamental” and “preparation” also come to mind.

John Wooden, the all-time great basketball coach, stressed fundamentals and preparation as essential components of excellence. In his book, Wooden – A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court, he succinctly observed: “[O]ur destination was a successful journey – namely, total, complete and detailed preparation.”

You simply cannot shortcut the basics, the fundamentals, the preparation, or as I talk about it, your grounding.

When I speak to lawyers about being grounded and being steady (the second of the Five Factors) I use the metaphor of a sailboat, and for the term grounded, its keel.

Like a sailboat keel, our grounding is our point of stability as we navigate the waters of life both personally and professionally. Without it, we are adrift.

For our purposes, “grounded” is a term for all of that: a strong sense of self, substantive knowledge of the law, an understanding of the fundamentals. For lawyers, I think there is also another dimension: being anchored in a sense of justice and an understanding of the lawyer’s role in the justice system, just as for an athlete there is a strong respect for and understanding of the game they play.

In some ways, we know grounding when we see it. To return to that earlier definition “Someone … who has a good understanding of what is really important in life.” I would add to that, “and a personal and professional understanding of the fundamentals of life and career.”

All of this begs the question, how do I know if I am grounded? Here are just a few quick questions to think about and test your grounding:

Am I paying attention to my inner voice about who I am, my true “self?” To paraphrase Steven Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is the ladder I am climbing leaning against the right (or wrong) wall? As Covey cautioned, if your ladder is leaning against the wrong wall, each step takes you further away from where you want to be.

Do I know my fundamentals – my stuff? Am I paying attention to the little details that matter? Are my fundamentals sound? How is my preparation? Again, Wooden’s teams were notorious for practicing putting on their socks tying their shoes. Literally.

Am I grounded in my important relationships? When was the last time you really checked in with a spouse, partner, child, or close friend?

If I am a religious person, in my faith, and even if you aren’t, your connections with nature, the world outside of yourself, etc.? Do not underestimate the importance of this sometimes uncomfortable inquiry.

Test and grade yourself on a scale of 1 to 5. Am I at a 1, needing a lot of work in this area, or am I feeling pretty good? And be honest. You cannot make progress to where you want to be unless you are honest about where you are now.

Grounding isn’t something you are born with or just happens – you have to work at it. A weekly or, better yet, daily focus on these questions returns focus to this fundamental requirement for success. It also helps us move back on track when we are adrift.

Tell me what you think.

My observations about successful attorneys come from my own nearly twenty years in the legal profession and my study of and work with some amazingly successful leaders in the field, but I want to know what you think. Chime in and let’s talk about what it means to be grounded.


4 thoughts on “Grounded.

  1. Joe Sullivan

    The more I consider the five factors you outline, the more I see the cross-over or interrelationship of the factors. To be grounded has a knowledge basis. As you say, grounded in the substantive knowledge of the law and grounded in the knowledge of who they are personally and professionally. However, I see those who are successful as having even a broader knowledge base of their grounding.

    I look at the speeches of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy. Their educations had a classical nature to them. That was evident in the rhetorical reference they made.

    On April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis, Indiana, RFK said:

    “I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.

    Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.

    In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black–considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible–you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization–black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.

    Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.

    For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.

    My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

    What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.

    So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love–a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

    We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.

    But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.

    Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

    Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

    This was total grounding. Grounded in what needed to be done. Grounded in who he was and what he needed to do. Grounded in the horror of this bother’s death, but understanding the bigger picture and the need to defuse a tinder box on the verge of an explosion. He took a personal tragedy, made himself relatable to his audience, and used words to create a balm to sooth what could be a very bitter and angry audience.

    As a small piece of this, he pulled up his knowledge of the poet Aeschylus and other Greek writings. This comes from a grounding in knowledge that is far reaching. I have seen successful leaders, both lawyers and non-lawyers, whose grounding is in a broad based knowledge of history, the arts, science, and philosophy.

    I would suggest two things. First, the aspect of grounding based in knowledge is vast and not limited to the law. Second, I would suggest your concept of grounding based on knowledge overlaps with the subsequent factor of the constant thirst for knowledge and to learn more.


    1. Joe, Thanks so much for the thoughtful post. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment. And I think in the era of “skill” training (which is terribly important) and STEM, we risk losing the importance of that broader knowledge base. I agree that, in ways, this does overlap with the third factor – that successful individuals, lawyers or not, and certainly leaders (I tend to use these terms somewhat interchangeably,) are continual learners and that seeking the expand their knowledge is actually a fundamental part of grounding. Again, great thoughts, Joe!


  2. Pingback: Being steady. – Life at the Peak*

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.