July 09, 2020 Feature

Learning from Others

A selection of lessons learned through the example of others.

by D. Hunter Polvi

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Experience is a master teacher, even when it’s not our own. In my short time practicing law, I have had the opportunity to learn from many brilliant people, some lawyers, some not. Although only some small amount of experience has come my way, I have certainly learned one thing: There is much to learn from others. Doing so allows us to inherit wisdom and knowledge without the hard lessons of trial and error or by making costly mistakes (though those are almost impossible to avoid). Below are a few of the lessons I have learned, through the example of others.

Illustration by Sean Kane

Illustration by Sean Kane

Be humble. No matter how good a lawyer you think you are, my goodness, the people around you will have all kinds of ideas for how you can get better—many of them good ones. But to learn these lessons, you need to have the humility to accept feedback and try to get better. I will never forget when I learned the utility of humility from one of my favorite law professors. I was called on in class and instructed to explain supplemental jurisdiction—where a federal court can hear a claim related to another claim over which the court has jurisdiction even though the court would lack the authority to hear the additional claim independently. After several attempts of stumbling through the definition, the professor asked me to explain the concept to him as though he were a five-year-old. I took the bait. “Well, when you are old enough to understand, I will be happy to explain it to you,” I said. Big mistake. In front of the class while my knees weakened, he asked, “Mr. Polvi, are you being a smartass with me?” We both knew that I had been. He rightfully assigned me a lengthy memorandum that would be due at 7:45 a.m., before class the next morning. I learned that, had I acted more humbly, I might have gotten away unscathed. Have confidence in the knowledge you have, but be humble in the knowledge you have yet to learn.

Act. Have a bias toward action. My first mentor once expressed his amusement for the other side’s inaction in a case, which my mentor described as “a lot of lathering with not a whole lot of shaving.” I learned that when you have a choice, choose action over inaction because that is how things get done. In that case, it was the opposing side’s inaction that eventually led to a remarkably favorable settlement for our client because trial was quickly approaching and we were ready, while the other side was wildly unprepared. We had acted; they hadn’t. Our judicial system provides the playing field, but we as advocates must carry the ball. We must act.

Add value. The practice of law isn’t as cruel as some people like to say; it’s just apathetic. It does not care about you and it will leave you behind unless you try to make something of yourself. This means you need to add value. For example, I learned from the first partner I worked for that you need to be (at least) two of three things: (1) correct, (2) on time, and (3) likable. These things add value. Our clients expect us to give the correct answer and expect us to do it on time. Do that. I have learned from clients that the value we add is our expertise. If we do not add value equivalent to what we charge, then we quite literally are not worth it. As to the likable part, that thing brings me to my next lesson learned.

Be the copilot you would want to have. Learn from your colleagues, and help your colleagues learn. I have seen time and again that there is much more value in working with your colleagues than in working for yourself. If you are the best at something, who cares? The other people around you aren’t. So help make them the best. Before my first first-chair jury trial, I had a million silly questions about the process. Even though I had already been to trial several times, I had never been the pilot in command. Another associate, who had already tried several cases as first chair, took the time to patiently answer every one of my questions. It meant the world to me and still does to this day. This associate was the copilot I would want to have because he took the time to help make me better. Eventually, as I have slowly progressed, I have learned that it is my job to help everybody else get better.

Be gracious. As success comes your way, remember that you did not do it alone. You did not rise to your level without the help of others. It’s always we. Selfless individuals in my life have taken the time to invest in me and help me become a better lawyer and, above all, a better person. When you have someone who has invested in your future, thank that person for it. No other profession has built a sturdier ladder for people to climb to success than the law profession. But help from others is what has put us in a position to achieve that success. Last, one of my dearest mentors once taught me my favorite line when it comes to learning: “A society grows great when people plant trees whose shadow they will never sit in.” As I have grown in my legal career, I am beginning to learn that, too.

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D. Hunter Polvi

The author is an associate with Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP, San Antonio.