March 01, 2016

Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer's Soul

Melanie Bragg

What Is Success?

 At our recent Midyear Meeting in San Diego I was part of a CLE panel discussing the recent GP Solo book How to Capture & Keep Clients, 2nd Ed. The panelists included Cindy Sharp, Jeff Allen, Mike Hurley, and Jennifer Wilner. We discussed our respective chapters in the book to a packed room. From my perspective, it was a lively and fun discussion.

The evaluations came back and I was pleased that there were many good comments and high marks for the panel. One comment stood out to me because it was something I wanted to mention that I forgot. The comment was: “Would like to have heard from the panel what their definition of success is.”

When I read that, I went BINGO—the discussion of the definition of success is a subject I have been pondering for many months as I search inward for my own definition and begin to come up with ways to motivate and encourage audiences to believe in themselves and their success. I hope the person who wrote that comment will read this column so they will see at least one attempt to answer an important question.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “success is the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame or the correct or desired result of an attempt.” It is also defined as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.”

We often think of success merely in terms of position or status, how much money one makes, how big one’s home is, or how much education one has. That definition of success has to do with monetary gain and perceived hierarchy. For me, in my life, I have a much broader and more encompassing definition of success and I calculate my own success more in terms of the little things in life that happen each day. Rather than being like a paint-by-number painting, success to me is more like an abstract painting; it can vary in different lights and at different times in your life.

For purposes of this brief discussion, I see three broad contextual areas to explore the definition of success:

  1. How society defines success;
  2. How our background forms our beliefs about success; and
  3. How we define success by knowing ourselves.

1. How society defines success. How society defines success changes all of the time, but for now in our current culture it is still what neighborhood you are from, your educational background, what kind of job you get, what kind of spouse you marry, and all of the traditional measures of “success.” Pop culture tells us it is what kind of smartphone you carry, what kind of car you drive, how puffy your lips are, and what designer shoes you wear. We all tend to have a little judgment barometer that goes off when we see certain signposts that tell us what success is according to our own definition. But culture still carries a big message. The old saying, “You can never be too rich or too thin” still works for some . . . .

All of that is well and good but many therapists will tell you that people with money have problems like everyone else, and sometimes all of that money is their problem. Case in point for me is the lottery. People think if they could only win the lottery their life would be so much better, but what actually starts happening is that sometimes their life turns upside down. I mediated a case once of a Hispanic busboy who won the lottery and four years later he was broke, divorced, in debt up to the hilt, and was being sued by several companies that advanced him funds on the lottery. We had another local lottery winner divorce his longtime wife and end up committing suicide because of the fallout from his lottery wins. I used to have a little quote taped to the outside of my lawyer desk in the early days when I lovingly called my file drawers the “Kennel Club”—full of those “dog” cases that young lawyers cut their teeth on. I can’t remember the exact quote but it was something like:

“People without money are more fortunate than those with money, because people without money think that their problems would be solved if they just had more money. The rich know better.”

2. How our background forms our beliefs about success. Our background has a great impact on our beliefs about success. For some, survival is success. For others, getting the kids to college is the biggest barometer of success. Some cultures value family above all else. People who come from the school of hard knocks might tend to measure success on one scale, whereas someone from a sheltered environment might look at it much differently. The bottom line is that there is a lot of variety in the ways that we can determine success and thinking about what it means in our lives is a good place to start.

3. How we define success by knowing ourselves. Points one and two lead me to point three: knowing ourselves allows us to define success for ourselves. When I speak to women’s groups I talk about thinking from the inside-out. What I mean by that is to measure yourself against yourself and your potential, rather than other people’s ideas and opinions. When we spend time comparing ourselves to others we often find a way to exaggerate their great points and minimize our own. And if we use our own success barometer and other people define success differently, then we tend to deflect their kind words to us as being self-depreciating.

Have you ever denied a compliment given in good faith? For example, someone comments on a successful outcome in a trial and you say, “Oh it wasn’t me, it was a simple case.” That is one way of deflecting your glory and also telling the world how you measure success. And it also does not honor the compliment giver.

As lawyers, I know that many of us are hard taskmasters, especially when measuring our own performance. Many of us are what some call “over-achievers.” I always wonder how anyone can be an over-achiever, what’s wrong with achieving . . . ? (Smile—guess I am busted!)

I always think of how I could have done better and I don’t spend as much time soaking in and up the satisfaction of doing a good job and what it really means to make a difference in people’s lives. I can have a productive hearing and great outcome for the client in the morning and then run back to the office and begin working on the next one . . . . Sometimes I don’t even reflect and absorb the good I have done or ponder the fact that going the extra mile really meant a lot to my clients and counsel, not to mention the court.

I say this now because as I write this, I just had an important case this morning that has been going on for eight years. It went up to the appellate court and all the way to the Texas Supreme Court before it came back down to the trial level where the court appointed me to represent the four children in the case that were exposed to lead poisoning many years ago. The case has many wrinkles and lots of hard work and craftsmanship went into the final result. Our goal is that the children’s lives and education will be much better because of our work.

Being aware of the need to sit and ponder the work we did and the good result, I stopped working on this article, called my law clerk in, and we spent a moment just soaking that “success” in before we rolled into the next challenge . . . .

Being conscious is just that: Taking the time each day to appreciate the moments; the small details of our lives that make a difference. Appreciating you for what you do each day, both the big things and the little things. I believe it will also make you healthier and happier in general.

What good thing have you done lately that you did not appreciate yourself for at all? Can you take a moment now and soak up and think about what good you did and how people are affected by it? Is there any resistance to giving you a little credit for a job well done? If so, I ask you to write a journal entry about it and see what comes up—you might discover something important about yourself. A small shift can have a big impact.

I began thinking about this a few months ago when I was talking to a man who is very successful, and he was proud of his lawyer son who had just gotten a big job with a big firm and was making a quarter of a million dollars his first year out. The man was bursting with pride. In that moment something made me wonder what would happen if his son ended up not liking the job at the big firm and wanted to go to work for the ACLU for $65,000 a year? Would his father still be as proud? Would his son’s definition of success be okay with him? Our feelings about success do change as our lives progress.  

For me, being a children’s lawyer, representing elderly people and mentally disadvantaged people for much of my career has allowed me to be like a social worker in many ways, which was what I wanted to be before I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. The many ways I get to affect lives makes me feel very successful and satisfied. Recently an adoptive father of a little girl I represented in a CPS case got back in touch with me on Facebook and posted his appreciation for the work I did over 10 years ago. The little girl was seven months then and she is in fifth grade now. I had to fight very hard to keep her with her original foster family, who massaged her little limbs each day to keep the cocaine exposure she endured in gestation from affecting her ability to develop. There was a more financially successful family that wanted to adopt, and the foster family had some issues that are normal in the real world but in the adoption world they can be deal breakers. I knew this child belonged to this family and am still so overjoyed that I was able to make sure the right family got her. Here we are, all these years later, and I am about to go see her at an event.

That is how I define my success in life. And I am so happy that not only do I have many of those old stories, but also many opportunities to create new ones every day. It gives me the will to keep going and it may be why I still feel as excited about the practice of law as I did when I was a baby lawyer and why I still think the law is the world’s greatest profession.

Think about your definition of success. Are you pursuing things that give your life meaning that provide you with that feeling of success that is deeply personal? If not, what can you do to shift into a place where you really feel your success in all areas of your life?

Everyone is different and we should all pursue what is right for us. For me having meaning in life is success. I am still exploring this subject and would love to hear your feedback at

We are doing the program again at our Fall Meeting in Cincinnati, which if you have not registered, check it out here: To see the speakers at the event, visit It promises to be a fun and informative event! I can’t wait to see Cincinnati!



Melanie Bragg

Melanie Bragg has long enjoyed a reputation as one of Houston’s fiercest attorneys in her representation of children, the elderly, and mentally disadvantaged people. Her firm, Bragg Law PC, is a general civil firm in Houston, Texas. She also writes and produces legal education programs through Legal Insight, Inc. (founded by Bragg in 1993). Her writing credits include Crosstown Park, an Alex Stockton legal thriller, HIPAA for the General Practitioner, chapters in How to Capture and Keep Clients, 2nd Edition; Effortless Marketing: Putting Your Unique Qualities to Work, 2nd Edition; and The Conscious Lawyer: How the Practice of Mindfulness Will Increase Your Bottom Line, as well as the upcoming book, Defining Moments: Insights into The Lawyer’s Soul, to be published by the American Bar Association (ABA) Flagship Division. When she is not writing, Melanie devotes her time to her work as Secretary of the Solo, Small Firm & General Practice (GP SOLO) Division and to sharing ideas with fellow authors. She is interested in your feedback and ideas about how solos, small firms, military, and government lawyers can lead richer, happier lives and thereby improve the delivery of legal services to the public. Melanie can be reached at