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The Role of Dumb Luck in Shaping a Legal Career

Norm Tabler


  • Three examples of how dumb luck dealt the author an ace at different points in his career.
The Role of Dumb Luck in Shaping a Legal Career
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Now retired, I have more than enough time to reflect on the factors that shaped my career. In doing so, I’m struck by the profound impact of what’s probably best described as dumb luck. By that, I mean the accidents, unexpected events, and quirks of fate I had no control over.

There was nothing special about my career. I regard it as successful but certainly not spectacular, maybe not even excellent. My autobiography could be titled Clawing My Way to the Middle.

I won’t bore you by enumerating the standard factors that shaped my career. You can guess most of them because they’re the same factors that shaped the careers of countless modestly successful big-firm lawyers. Instead, I offer three examples of how dumb luck dealt me an ace at different points in my career.

Example 1: How I Got a Summer Job with a Wall Street Firm

In the fall of 1969, I began my second year of law school in New York. Although I intended to return to Indiana after graduation, I wanted to burnish my resume with a summer clerkship at a Wall Street law firm. I also wanted the generous salary those firms paid.

The problem was, of course, competition. It seemed like every law student on the East Coast and beyond wanted a summer position with a Wall Street firm. One October afternoon, I found myself in one such firm being interviewed by a seasoned partner. He looked bored to death.

And why not? He’d probably spent dozens of hours sitting across from law students who looked just like me.

When he glanced at my resume, something caught his attention. He looked up and asked if my hometown was in Floyd County. When I said yes, he proceeded to tell me that, during the Korean War, the army had stationed him at an ordnance plant in the adjoining county. Warming to the subject, he asked, “Are you aware there’s an eminent American jurist in your county?”

“Of course,” I said. “Everyone in Floyd County knows it’s the home of former US Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton.”

Warming to the subject myself, I added, “In fact, my sister is Sherman Minton’s dentist’s receptionist.”

Laughing out loud, he said something along the lines of, “My lord, a legal credential like that, yet so modest you left it off your resume. You’re hired!”

And that’s how I got a summer job with a Wall Street firm.

Example 2: That Time My Career Was Saved from My Own Carelessness

Fast forward three years or so. I was a young associate at the firm I’d be associated with for most of my career. I was unhappy with the supervising partner I’d been assigned to, just as he was unhappy with my performance. I wanted to be reassigned to a different partner, one who oversaw a different practice area.

He was a perfectionist, accustomed to performing at the highest level. He’d been law review editor-in-chief and a US Supreme Court clerk. He wasn’t eager to take me on, perhaps because of my less-than-spectacular performance up to that point. Nevertheless, he agreed to what amounted to an audition: He’d see how I performed on a significant research project.

At the end of the project, he and I sat across from each other, prepared to discuss the memo I’d produced. Each of us had a volume of state statutes, opened to the statute central to my memo. My black volume was from the firm library. His blue volume, published by a different company, was his own.

As we compared my memo to the statutory language, it became apparent that I’d misread the statute and produced a memo the statute didn’t support. Quietly and succinctly, he let me know that my work was unacceptable. Near tears, I returned to my office.

Within minutes, the partner appeared at my door, blue volume in hand. He apologized for his earlier criticism, explaining that he now understood I wasn’t at fault. The volume, he said, contained an erroneous entry that had misled me. Opening his blue volume, he showed me: The statute in question was on the right-hand page, but across from it, on the left-hand page, was an earlier version of the same statute bearing the same number but not identified as superseded.

That earlier version, he observed, supported my memo. So, he concluded, I’d innocently focused on the left-hand page and was in no way to blame.

But here’s the thing: My black volume didn’t include that superseded version of the statute. The partner’s initial reaction was correct: I’d read the current version of the statute, but I’d misread it. There was no excuse for it, but I was excused because of an erroneous entry I never even saw. My career was saved.

I continued to work for that partner until I became a partner myself. Only later did I begin to wonder, did he really think I was misled by reading the wrong statute, or was he simply being kind? I can’t be certain, but my guess is that it was a little of both: He couldn’t be sure that I’d read the wrong statute, but he was a kind, generous man, glad for an excuse to save me from my own carelessness.

Example 3: I Found My Career Path by Telling a Joke

Now fast forward to a December day several years later. I was a partner but hadn’t yet found a practice niche. When I entered the elevator at lunchtime, the only other occupant was the firm’s oldest—and jolliest—partner. A devout Catholic, he represented several Catholic organizations, including a large hospital.

“Norm,” he bellowed, “Guess who I danced with at the hospital’s Christmas party last night? Sister Hildegard, president of the hospital! What do you think about that?”

Desperate for a response, I replied with what was even then a very old joke: “Well, sir, you know what they say about dancing with nuns, don’t you?”

“No,” he answered, “what do they say?”

“Well, sir, they say an occasional dance is all right, but don’t get into the habit.”

He roared with laughter. But that wasn’t the end of it. Well over a year later, he called me into his office and told me he was retiring. And, he went on, he vaguely recalled that I had some connection with hospitals, maybe even Catholic hospitals. So, he asked, would I like to replace him as the firm’s contact for the Catholic hospital?

I didn’t reveal that my hospital connection was limited to telling the nun-and-habit joke. Instead, I accepted his offer and devoted the rest of my career to representing hospitals. Don’t tell me dumb luck isn’t important.