Tag Archives: Associate’s Mind

American Lawyer, Eastern Mindset

MarbleandtheSculptorcover-683x1024I have long found much to admire about Keith Lee’s writing in his well-regarded Associate’s Mind blog. His voice is intelligent, but accessible. His tone is informed, but not condescending. His consistent message about the state of our profession is tough, but not without optimism.

I was pleased to find all of these qualities and more in his recently published first book, The Marble And The Sculptor.

What I particularly appreciate about Lee’s thoughts, as expressed in his words, is how they are often infused with precious pearls of Eastern wisdom. It is refreshing, at a time when the business of law threatens to eclipse what was once regarded as a noble profession, to encounter a fellow lawyer who strives to penetrate deeper into what it means to undertake a legal education, to prepare for and pass the bar examination and, finally, to carve out one’s own place within our profession. The decision to commit to this profession is a serious one, and Lee invariably addresses these issues with unflinching candor.

As an undergraduate student of Western philosophy, I occasionally flirted in a superficial way with Eastern thinking on issues of metaphysics, epistemology and religion. But I never let my guard down or did the work necessary to really grasp the Eastern mind. Again, when my wife and I traveled throughout Asia during our sabbatical, I was confronted and tried to learn about the Eastern religions, the teachings of the Buddha, the Hindu belief system and others, including radical Jainism. But regardless of my immersion, those teachings remained essentially foreign to my Western-bred mind.

Lee forces me to revisit the Eastern mind, but to apply that way of thinking to my own chosen profession as a lawyer attempting to practice here, in America. As the rapidly growing blawgosphere demonstrates, pretty much anybody can write about law. The difference in reading Lee is not only that he has something to say, but what he says carries a much larger, often universal import. His how-to manual for newly-minted lawyers would not require much revision to serve as a how-to manual for success in any career, or even in life. I believe it is his Eastern mindset that gives Lee’s words their added wisdom, their depth.

Much of Lee’s advice for succeeding both as a law student and a lawyer comes down to one quality: discipline. It’s not an accident that Lee came to law school, as he puts it, “a bit later in life” at twenty-seven. After college, he spent a year as a runner/project assistant/gopher at a large law firm. Yet, even after this experience cemented his certainty that he wanted to be a lawyer, he did not enter law school right away, but instead moved to Canada to train as an ichi deshi to a shihan (master) for nearly a year. He briefly describes this experience as

” . . . crazy and awesome and painful and beautiful — one of the best and most difficult experiences in my life. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to encapsulate in words. Sleeping in a storage closet under the stairs in the basement of the dojo on a thin mat. Subsisting primarily on rice, vegetables and PB&Js (okay, and beer on occasion). Training five to eight hours a day, five to six days a week. Bleeding toes and cracked ribs. Scrubbing toilets and washing mats. Friendships gained and lost. Intense spiritual moments of training and camaraderie, intense times of loneliness and introspection. No TV, no movies, no cellphone.” (Id. at 97-98.)

Not exactly Club Med. But perfect training for the mental discipline needed to become a successful professional. Describing the training during this period, Lee writes:

“After the lecture there would be an hour or so breakdown on one technique, perhaps one movement. A pivot or a shift of hips or moving into position against your partner. A single movement could be repeated hundreds of times. Occasionally I would be told the movement was correct. Mostly I would be told that the movement was wrong.

It was aggravating. It was boring. It was difficult. Deliberate, long, tiresome, and trying. After the tenth repetition of a movement I would grow bored. At the thirtieth, my mind started to wander. At the sixtieth I was barely concentrating. At the hundredth, my mind had become still and there was only the movement.” (Id. at 98.)

This focus on discipline as the key to growth as a lawyer is echoed throughout The Marble And The Sculptor. From one’s selection of law school electives, to developing key relationships, to balancing the competing demands of family and law school and, later, law practice, he returns again and again to the notion of discipline. Lee writes:

“Every lawyer, every person you meet, was once young, naive, and ignorant as you are. It is now your personal responsibility–no one else’s–to mature and develop into a competent lawyer who is fit to be trustworthy of a client’s problems.” (Id. at 21.)

Another vein that travels throughout the book is the notion of humility, which I believe also finds its genesis in his Eastern studies. There is a tendency, after you’ve devoted years of your life and a small fortune to finish law school, excelled on law review or moot court or whatever, to take yourself pretty seriously as a brand new lawyer. Lee gently reminds readers that, as new lawyers, you don’t know shit.

But his purpose isn’t to cut baby lawyers down. Rather, Lee is interested in teaching the kind of humility that is found in Eastern thought and easily seen in the martial arts, in the interest of helping you on your path to becoming a professional. He writes:

“After obtaining my black belt, did I consider myself a master? When I received my JD and passed the Bar, did I consider myself an expert lawyer? Of course not. They’re ridiculous propositions.

Traditionally, a black belt has only meant one thing: you were now considered a serious student. Everything before was playtime. Training wheels. Getting a black belt only signifies that you have mastered the basics and are ready to begin dedicated study. The same is true with a JD. Having a JD doesn’t indicate mastery of the law. It’s merely a signifier that you are probably ready to step onto the playing field. What follows is up to you.” (Id. at 102-03 (emphasis in original).)

Readers of Lee’s blog, as well as his new book, quickly learn that his choice of title for the blog, Associate’s Mind, was no accident, but reflects this essentially Eastern attitude of humility toward our profession. He writes:

“So, during my final year of law school, I started a legal blog titled Associate’s Mind, a play on words of a concept in Zen known as shoshin, or ‘beginner’s mind.’ A ‘beginner’s mind’ refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.

I wanted to adopt this mindset in my practice of law. The idea that an associate should be flexible and open to new ideas and processes, while being mindful of the guidance of those who have tread the road before them. ” (Id. at xii.)

I encourage you to read Lee’s new book, and to subscribe and follow Associate’s Mind. You will find there pearls of the kind of wisdom our profession desperately needs at this difficult time.


A System Without A Goal Is Not A Good System

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” . . . and a donut without a hole, is a Danish.”
-Caddyshack

In a media dialogue between two minds I greatly admire, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, and Associate’s Mind blogger and newly-published book author Keith Lee, the notion of setting goals recently took a severe beating.

Adams kicked off the goal-bashing in an entertaining Wall Street Journal piece, “What’s the best way to climb to the top? Be a failure.” Waxing autobiographically about the twists and turns that ultimately led to his huge success as a cartoonist, Adams suggests that goals, like diets, are basically a recipe for failure or disappointment, or both. He says:

“To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.”

So, since “goals are for losers,” Adams suggests we settle into a comfortable couch and spark some high-resin Bob Hope, right? Sadly, no. Instead, he suggests the recipe for success is found in developing “systems.” Unlike goals, systems are not only durable but evolutionary. He writes:

“Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.”

For his part, in a post entitled “Goals Are For Losers,” Lee embraces Adams’ mantra hook, line and sinker. Because Lee tends to focus on our development as lawyers, he suggests that systems are the path to success as a lawyer. He says:

“This focus on systems – and systematic improvement – can apply to almost every aspect of being a lawyer. Want to improve your writing? Develop a system in which you consistently write and receive feedback. Want to improve oral argument skills? Get together with other lawyers and set up an informal meeting/group devoted to affording lawyer the opportunity to engage in oral arguments and receive feedback. Think mock trial team from law school. Hell get your firm or the local bar to sponsor/support it. You can’t just skate by and hope to succeed as a lawyer. You have to work at it.”

I’m here to say that I haven’t heard so much empty linguistic sophistry about “systems” from intelligent minds since I finished that awful Hegel seminar my last quarter at UC San Diego. Both Adams and Lee are spot on that systems are indeed the path to success. And Adams is absolutely right that all of us are going to encounter failure along that road. After all, failure and adversity are what teach us resilience and build our character.

Where both go wrong, however, is in the suggestion that we abandon goals. Whaaaa?

What is a system without a goal? It’s just an exercise. We wouldn’t “consistently write and receive feedback,” as Lee suggests, for the sake of writing and receiving feedback. We use this system to help reach the GOAL of becoming a better writer. If you were going to take time out of your otherwise busy life to “set up an informal meeting/group devoted to affording . . . the opportunity to engage in oral arguments and receive feedback,” you would do so in order to reach the GOAL of becoming a better oral advocate. (Brief aside: don’t bother “setting up” any such thing, just join Toastmasters.)

There are perpetual students who obtain multiple degrees and never really leave school. But they have a system–just no goal. Goals are the key to success, as the authors’ own success aptly–but perhaps unwillingly–illustrate. Keith Lee would never have become a lawyer without setting the GOALS of graduating from college, getting into law school, then completing law school. He wouldn’t have built a wildly successful and influential blawg without the GOAL of building a quality law blog. And, he would not have a new book worth reading if he had not set the GOAL of finishing a book worth reading.

The key here is not to abandon goal-setting. Rather, once you set a goal, develop a system to reach that goal. And be flexible about adjusting that goal if it begins to seem unrealistic or you suffer a major set back, which is reasonably likely.

On the other side of the coin, when you achieve a goal, don’t spiral into depression, feeling “empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you.” Set a new goal! Reach higher and farther.

And read Dilbert. Often.


Getting In Touch With My Inner Associate

uuyuyyrIf anyone reading this blog has not read–and read often–Associate’s Mind, you must absolutely begin following it. Every post has some nugget of brilliance.

Before I  actually read the blog, I assumed from the title I would encounter either (1) ranting about the misery of being an overworked albeit overpaid BigLaw associate à la the old Greedy Associates message boards;* or (2) posts like “Five Easy Tips To Bill 2,700 Hours Before October!” I couldn’t have been more off-base. Instead, I’ve always found thoughtful, well-written posts offering insight on topics ranging from the profession to litigation strategy to Eastern Philosophy.

And, now that I’ve been a partner in an AmLaw 150 law firm for almost 10 years, I feel qualified to endorse the following observation by the blog’s author, Keith Lee:

“Although frequently people speak of always thinking like a “partner” or “partner-level” thinking when in regards to how one should conduct oneself inside a firm –  reject the notion. Just as in the mind of the master there are few possibilities and in the Beginner’s mind, infinite – most partners have fixed ways of thinking and conducting their practice and processes.

An Associate’s Mind should be flexible and open to new ideas and processes, while being mindful of the guidance of those who have tread the road before him.”

I recognize this tendency in myself to “have fixed ways of thinking and conducting [my] practice and processes,” and I don’t like it. When he refers to the beauty of the “Beginner’s mind,” I think I may know what Lee means: I love to watch how my 4-year-old approaches any new issue, problem or obstacle. Her thinking is always “outside the box” (or whatever cliché you prefer) because she hasn’t yet been trained to think inside the box.

As we gain experience and, hopefully, wisdom in our profession and our life, we should strive to retain the infinite possibilities of the Beginner’s mind.

*Note: I have not read Greedy Associates in many years, so I don’t know if such ranting still persists, though I expect it does.


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