My experiences have taught me a few things that I use to guide my now-college-age children on their journeys through life. They are basic truisms that have gotten me through some di cult times. Here they are.
People are pretty good at spotting a phony. Whether you are arguing to a jury, giving a speech or interacting with people on a daily basis, the best course of action is to be yourself. People tend to admire people who are comfortable in their own skin and aren’t afraid to stand out from the crowd.
Be that person
I learned the value of authenticity at my first court appearance. I was tasked with cross examining a prominent
Philadelphia lawyer about his firm’s fee application in the bankruptcy court. In an e ort to be a tough cross-examiner, I found myself taking on a new persona. My tone was serious. My questions were leading. I was scowling. With experience, I came to realize that a better cross-examination strategy for me was to smile, appear unthreatening, start with some “soft-ball” questions and then go in for the zinger. It was a style that was both authentic and effective, and one that I drew on repeatedly over the years.
Play to Your Strengths
Part of being authentic is knowing what you do well and what you don’t do well. As my children are making decisions about colleges and careers, I challenge them to think about what they like to do and where they excel. When I decided to open my own law firm, I thought about what I enjoy and do well. I concluded that I loved to research and write and that I should focus on appellate work. Play to your strengths.
Know What You Value
People value different things. I grew up in a family where we valued education and experience more than things. When I was 11, our family went on an extensive family vacation in Europe, traveling to Germany, Denmark and England. At the time my parents explained that we were taking the trip rather than buying a new car because they believed experiences were more important than acquisitions. When you are caught up in a challenging and demanding legal career, it is easy to lose sight of your values. Days, months, even years can go by. It is easy to lose track of what you value. I was an English major in college and have always loved to read. But there were years that went by where I was so busy with work and family that I didn’t read for pleasure. I lost sight of something I valued.
Knowing what you value and acting on those values can help you to avoid having regrets at the end of your career.
Never Stop Learning
I have always found the most interesting people to be knowledgeable about a lot of different things. They read,
travel, take up new sports, try new restaurants. Life is an adventure. You will be more interesting to other people —
and yourself — if you choose to be a lifelong learner.
Failure Is a Beginning, Not an End
When I was a law student at the University of Texas, there were few women on the law-school faculty. One of them
was a young bankruptcy professor who came from the University of Houston Law Center. She was very popular and
had a knack for making bankruptcy law interesting (no easy feat). Many of the students, especially the female students, were upset when she did not get tenure. She moved on, and we graduated. Years later I learned what became of that young professor. She went from Texas to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, then Harvard Law. From there she was appointed to a position in the Obama administration. She then ran for elected office. That young law professor was Elizabeth Warren, now a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, a well-known consumer advocate and spokesperson for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. For Elizabeth Warren and many others, failure was a beginning, not an end.
Take the High Road
My first foray into politics was when I ran for township supervisor. It was a hard-fought campaign against the
incumbent chairman of the board of supervisors. My election cost the dominant political party control of the board. There were many in the old guard who were not happy to see me win, and they let me know it. They would send emissaries to our monthly meetings who would speak up during public comment in an effort to harass and discredit me. I soon realized that the worst thing I could do would be to let myself fall to their level. So I took the high road. Every time one of them appeared at the meeting, I was unfailingly polite and ladylike. Our meetings were televised, and it appears that the word got back to the perpetrators that their attack strategy
wasn’t working. They stopped coming to meetings. By taking the high road, I avoided confrontation and made the
township look good to the public. I was rewarded by being re-elected twice. I served on that board for 15 years and
made many friends from both political parties in the process. When in doubt about what course of action to follow, take the high road. You won’t regret it.
Reprinted with permission from the January/February 2017 issue of The Pennsylvania Lawyer.