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.