I Wish I'd Known

Vol. 41 No. 4

"Embrace change . . . and realize that you might be wrong.

The world changes, and the rate of change seems to be increasing every day. In the 15 years since I graduated  law school, we’ve had a financial boom and massive collapse, one catastrophic terrorist attack and two wars, two Internet booms and a mobile computing revolution, the rise of a truly international economic system, an election decided by the Supreme Court, an attempted presidential impeachment, and the first black president. It seems like we have a “legal issue of the decade” every few years, and, in the meantime, the legal profession has seen major law firms go under and practice areas rise from obscurity to prominence (and sometimes back again). I don’t think I could have predicted any of it.

Change occurs at a personal level, too. Leaving law school, I thought I’d never leave government service for the private sector, and I never imagined that the company I joined (Google) would have an impact on the world that rivals what many governments can achieve. I didn’t think I’d ever become a “real lawyer,” and yet here I am working as a startup general counsel.

Basically, almost everything I thought in law school was wrong. That’s what I wish I’d known: how wrong I would be about the world and myself. Obviously, that means you should question anything I say. But for what it’s worth, I’ve found that the following recommendations have held up pretty well over time:

  • Seek out good people. In a rapidly changing world, the people we choose to be close to are more important than ever. Nothing has benefited me more in my work and my life than surrounding myself with people from whom I have a lot to learn, both as a lawyer and as a person.
  • Be humble. What’s wise today could be folly tomorrow. Humility is a virtue unto itself, but a humble perspective could also be the key to spotting a change before it runs you over.
  • Principles matter. Be guided by a thoughtful set of principles that matter to you personally. There will be times when it’s not clear what will happen next, and your principles may be all you have to guide you. More practically speaking, principles can steer you toward practice areas that you enjoy and help you have an impact because you’ll fundamentally care about your work.
  • Learn to live with risk. Many lawyers have traditionally been in the business of risk minimization. But if change continues to accelerate, I think we’d be serving our clients and ourselves very poorly trying to swim against that tide. Build change into your advice and assumptions, and don’t forget that some of the best legal careers are those that embrace change.

Perhaps these recommendations have held up over time for me because they’re very personal in nature. In these tumultuous times, it may be that our outlook on life is one of the few things we can depend on.

 

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