Each of us has a moral obligation to be successful, period. If only it were that easy to explain, but alas, it’s not. When I discuss this concept with attorneys, I am initially met with bewilderment. So, allow me to explain why this proposition holds true and, in fact, should be a core concept in our profession.
What Is a Moral Obligation?
Given that we lawyers like to be specific with our words, more so than the general public, I should explain how I define moral obligation. The well-known philosophers that we studied in high school and college (Kant, Hobbes, Locke, Aquinas, etc.) all had their own definitions of morality, and thus the resulting obligations that flowed from such morality were different as well. Rather than go into the intricacies of the varying meanings given to morality by such academics, I will offer a much simpler concept.
Morality is essentially our belief system of what is right and wrong. A moral obligation is the requirement to pursue what we believe is right and act accordingly. Unfortunately, while we would like to believe there are universal truths, there is no one system of morality among humans. Moral obligations differ according to one’s morality. The Golden Rule is as close as we can come to one truth accepted by all.
While we have societal norms that may affect our ability to pursue our moral obligations, such norms in and of themselves do not create moral obligations. Each human is endowed with the ability to think independently and therefore form a belief system of what is right and wrong. Once we understand what is right and wrong in our own mind, then our obligations will reveal themselves to us.
Whether or not we choose to follow those obligations does not diminish the obligations themselves. After all, man generally has free will. A core concept of humanity is that we will naturally gravitate toward what we think is right. There are exceptions for psychopaths and those who simply can’t figure out right from wrong, but, generally speaking, humans will recognize their moral obligations as such and act accordingly.
I suspect that each of you know and accept that each of your moral obligations is a duty to act according to what you consider is right in any given matter you face.
What Is Success?
Success is even more malleable than morality. We all define success differently at various times in our lives. How we think about success changes according to the situation we are in and what stage in life we are in at any given time. Generally, success is some sort of positivity in our life.
There are debates among thought leaders about whether success is the journey or the destination. In other words, is it something to be achieved or something done as we live our lives? I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. I personally believe it can be both at the same time. I certainly don’t ascribe to the notion that success has only one definition.
One of my definitions of success is simply living up to one’s potential. I believe whether by nature, God, or another universal force, we are all given specific skills and talents that need room to grow. For many of us as attorneys, we are blessed with brilliant minds, great attention to detail, strong empathy and caring for others, and super advocacy skills. These abilities make it possible to serve others.
We are in a profession of service. Such service is not limited to our clients, however, as we also serve our communities, our profession, and our judicial system under the rule of law. We each have the ability to serve in many capacities, and thus success happens when we maximize our efforts according to our abilities.
An important condition to this particular definition of success is that we must continue to grow and expand our abilities and talents. We cannot rest on our laurels and then call ourselves successful when we meet our low limitations.
I am a Fellow of the Texas Bar College, which is an honor given to less than 5 percent of all attorneys licensed in Texas. Those of us in the Texas Bar College have more continuing legal education credits than 95 percent of the attorney in Texas and must maintain such learning habits to stay in the College year after year. Being a Fellow means I have been meeting the higher requirements for many years now.
I am constantly learning so that I can raise my lid. As author and speaker John Maxwell explains, the “Law of the Lid” means that my level of effectiveness and potential is determined by my level of abilities. If I can increase the quality and quantity of my abilities, then I will increase my potential and effectiveness at whatever I put my mind to at any given time. In the past three years, I have expanded into a new practice area and taken on new certifications. I also am learning how to better market myself and serve others. I know I am better than I was five years ago, and I hope that I will be exponentially better in five years than I am today. When my time on Earth is done and I am finally laid to rest, I am hopeful that my life will be considered a success because, despite my many setbacks (often self-made), I kept increasing my potential and reaching to achieve it in my deeds and words.
Are We Morally Obligated to Reach Our Potential?
It is my fervent belief that it is morally right for us to reach our full potential. We need to keep learning and growing so that we can increase our abilities and thus be the most effective we can be. My potential will be different from yours, which will be different from someone else’s. Beyond comparing ourselves to each other, however, we should compare where we are with where we have been in order to determine our progress. I would surely hope I am more knowledgeable and skilled than I was in law school and that the law school version of me was better than the high school senior version of me.
To be fair, I hope that none of us ever reaches our full potential. Our potential should be a continually moving target, right in front of us but just out of reach because we are constantly expanding our potential. The Olympian doesn’t accept that world records are simply unable to be broken but rather strives to increase her knowledge, skill, and ability and thus her potential. With increased personal potential, the Olympian looks at a world record as something that can be broken and will be broken. The only question is whether she or someone else will break that record.
To use our profession as an example, the better we become as attorneys, the better we can serve our clients. Whether you are a litigator, transactional attorney, mediator, judge, or any other role in the legal profession, you will become more effective the more you learn, grow, and improve your abilities. Who’s to say that we are limited to just being attorneys? None of us is one-dimensional, so whether it’s increasing your practice areas, taking on hobbies and business ventures, or becoming the best at what you already do, you will be doing yourself a world of good and fulfilling your obligation to achieve your highest potential.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Now you presumably understand and agree with me as to why and how success is our moral obligation. Because it is a moral obligation, we must not be complacent with our current life. We must constantly envision a more abundant life in all respects and thus not only increase our ability to achieve such a life but also act on that ability in order to reach such a life. Our notion of what we can achieve should be ever-changing and thus not totally attainable. Yet, even in our constant struggle to achieve the impossible, we will recognize that our life is and has been a success. When we take our final breaths, we and others will be able to say we led a successful life because we kept improving our abilities and acting on such abilities to maximize our effectiveness in whatever we endeavored to do.
Published in GPSolo magazine, Volume 36, Number 6, November/December 2019. © 2019 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.