However, after I turned in my first assignment, a brilliant, young, detail-oriented Yale Law School graduate in my division sat down with me and practically went line by line through what I had written. He told me not only what needed to be improved, but what I had done wrong. He pointed out wordiness, improper citation formats, formatting errors, areas where I needed more support for my points, and more. He also understood the subject matter that I was writing about so well that he provided numerous insights I had not only missed, but probably would have never been able to come up with on my own. I hated it. My response to this first dressing down was mumbling something about it being only "a draft" and that I was already aware of all of the errors, inconsistencies, and more.
This was a massive shock to my confidence, and I did not enjoy it at all. My feeling was that it was an assault on my ego and undermined my view of myself.
Throughout the summer, I had more and more meetings like this with a variety of other attorneys. Each time I did an assignment and had the work torn up, I got a little bit better. I started to be more thorough, review my work more carefully, and completely think through every issue. I realized there was a lot of depth to the work I was doing, and I eventually understood that I needed to improve. I started to look forward to the criticism of my work and viewed it as a game—my job was to produce work so good that no one would be able to poke holes in it.
I am the first to admit that I did not get there that summer—but I tried. By the time I was a second-year attorney, however, things changed. I made very few errors and was in a position where I was able to find mistakes and other problems with the work of others. I had surrounded myself and worked with the best attorneys I could find, and this helped me develop a personal psychology where I became an expert at constantly questioning my work and that of others.
Even to this day, over two decades after quitting the practice of law, I meet at least twice a week with coaches who make me accountable for my goals and evaluate my performance. We need people to hold us responsible and tell us what we are doing wrong.
Making Criticism Count
The people who are the best at anything question the quality of their work regularly. They are always improving and totally open to criticism—they understand that it will ultimately make them stronger. In contrast, people who fail and never reach their potential take the opposite approach. Instead of listening to criticism, admitting their weaknesses, and using them as a springboard to improve and get better—they end up avoiding any sort of criticism because they feel it is an assault to their ego and how they see themselves.
In many respects, it is a common trait among the most educated people that they can be criticized and have their work poked at the most and yet always improve. The least educated people are often those who are unwilling to have their work criticized. Many people isolate themselves in jobs, relationships, and even geographic locations to avoid criticism and protect their egos.
For most of my career, I have hired and trained legal recruiters to work at BCG Attorney Search. When I first start training these recruiters, I generally find two types of people: (1) those who listen, want to learn, and welcome coaching and criticism, and (2) those who already think they know everything, have no desire to be coached or criticized, and want to protect their egos. By definition, the best people for any job continually seek out the most demanding environments and coaches to help them improve. They happily take criticism or advice and incorporate it into whatever they are doing to improve. They never rest on their laurels and are always looking to reach the next level. The best athletes and people in any profession are the people who expose themselves to the best coaching and surround themselves with people and environments that push them to succeed.
Legal placement is a complicated business if you are going to be good at it. There is a lot to learn, and being good at it requires the ability to learn best practices and adjust your behavior accordingly.
Early in my career, I noticed something that remains true to this day: The recruiters who did the best were always teachable. They never assumed they already knew everything. They asked questions and they would listen, listen, listen. When they did start work, they were very open to criticism. They made multiple appointments with me to understand what they could do better. They would speak with others to learn how to improve as well. These were also the recruiters who succeeded at the highest scale. They continually grew and sought out advice. They were open to criticism—and even more importantly, they accepted it.
In contrast, I have worked with many recruiters who have not succeeded and, in fact, ended up failing altogether or not doing nearly as well as they could. In a good economy, a recruiter can generally do well in the legal placement business. The company assigns them people to work with, who they match with open jobs and end up making placements. These sorts of recruiters often get a false sense of their abilities and believe there is something special about what they are doing. They may be excellent at "matching" candidates to jobs—but they rarely succeed when the economy turns, or if they go to other placement firms where they are not assigned candidates.
In almost every instance, the recruiters who have failed at this company—when the economy turns—or at other firms after they leave were the ones who thought they knew everything. These recruiters were afraid of learning what they were doing wrong. They did not want to be accountable and would not show up for mandatory meetings with me to discuss their candidates. These recruiters would avoid anything that would make them responsible for improving, simply to protect their egos. In addition, in most cases, the recruiters who failed and left were those with the least rigorous or prestigious educational and work histories. A history of avoiding criticism and not improving was reflected in their work and educational background as well.
I believe that a significant difference between those who succeed and those who fail is the ability to listen to criticism—then taking that criticism and using it to improve. If you are going to get better at something, you need to expose yourself to an examination that makes you uncomfortable. You need to break out of your comfort zone and demand more from yourself.
What Law Firms Want
When it comes down to it, one of the unspoken differences between the best law firms and the worst ones is the quality of what they will tolerate. Better firms will not tolerate mediocrity or people with a history of not listening to criticism or not exposing themselves to demanding environments.
The best law firms are not interested in people without the best educational backgrounds. Your ability to go to a good law school and do well there is a sign of your drive to expose yourself to the most competitive environment possible. Weak law firms will accept people who take the easier route. But the best law firms will not tolerate mediocrity in education or in terms of hours, work quality, commitment, and more from their attorneys.
The best law firms also have systems in place to make sure that shoddy work and unqualified people are not in the firm. If someone's work quality falls, the firm will expel them like a virus. The policing of work and people takes place at every level of the law firm, and they will not allow anyone but the best people to work there. The product every law firm is selling is the quality of its people—their minds, commitment, education, and history of achievement. Without these things, a law firm is nothing.
What happens when the best law firms take chances on people like this? If a prestigious law firm hires someone from the middle of their class from a fourth-tier (or even a second or third-tier) law school—rather than a top student from a first-tier school—they are typically getting a person who does not have a history of surrounding themselves with the best people or achieving at a high level when surrounded by others with lower grade points, LSAT scores and so forth. This attorney is likely to carry the same habits, level of detail, drive, and smarts to the law firm and service their clients in a similar way. Since they probably never mastered the LSAT or their grades, the attorney is not likely to learn from criticism of their work. Other attorneys in the prestigious law firm will pick up on this and eat the attorney alive—they will be gone in months. For their part, the attorney from the mediocre background will not see the point in working so hard and will want to continue to do their work free from criticism.
Even in terms of the qualities needed to get into the best law schools, there are glaring differences in the quality of people who can make it in the door at one school versus another. If you examine the undergraduate transcript of someone who goes to Yale Law School, the odds are that they have taken all sorts of challenging classes as an undergraduate at a similarly good school. These high achievers have clear drives and interests that make their resumes much different than most law students. To a lesser extent, the same is true of students who go to University of Chicago Law School or Stanford Law School.
In contrast, you can go to Harvard Law School, University of Michigan Law School, New York University Law School, and other law schools by going to just about any college, doing very well there, and also excelling on the LSATs. Yet schools like Yale continue to attract people who constantly succeed and proactively expose themselves to the most demanding academic environments.
Leave Your Ego at the Door
If you didn’t realize it yet, this is actually an article about what you need to do in your job search to get the best job possible. Incredibly, many of the best attorneys out there—the ones who consistently open themselves up to the most criticism in their careers by working in the most demanding law firms—often fail to open themselves up to having their egos bruised during job searches.
When you are looking for a law firm position, you are selling a product—you. You are also competing with lots of other people selling the same product—in some cases, hundreds of people may be applying for the same position. Whether or not a firm interviews and hires you is nothing but a business decision. They will hire you if it makes sense for them from a business standpoint, compared to all of the other sellers who are trying to sell the same thing.
I was shopping for a toaster oven on Amazon recently. I reviewed the "resumes" of probably 50 different toaster ovens and chose one. It was confusing because some of them had features that were important to me, and others did not. Some looked very similar, and it was hard to distinguish between many of them. Ultimately, I chose one.
While this is a somewhat “crude” example, the egos of the toaster ovens that were not chosen should not have been hurt, and I hope they were not. The toaster ovens I did not want were not selected because I made a "business decision" about which toaster oven was best for me. It is as simple as that.
After living and breathing legal placement for most of my career, I can look at almost any attorney and understand what they are doing wrong in their job search and how they are approaching things improperly. If they follow my advice, most of them will be able to work at far better firms than they would without my input. When it comes to legal recruiters who work for me, it is the same thing. The difference between a recruiter who makes five placements a year and one who makes 20 placements a year is almost always their ability to accept criticism, learn from their mistakes, and continuously improve. This is true in almost all professions.
When an attorney manages to get a position with a prestigious law firm—whether laterally or as their first job—they often have certain beliefs about their desirability. They expect they should only have to apply to a few firms to get a job. They may believe they are an attorney of a certain level or prestige. They begin to think that they need to protect themselves and their egos from rejection.
Early in my legal career, I was working with a real estate attorney in Arizona who wanted to work in Los Angeles. He did not have the California Bar Exam, was working at a small law firm, had gone to a mediocre law school, and had not done well there. Moreover, all of his previous experience was in-house, and he had only been working in a law firm for about six months. Despite all of this, real estate was in high enough demand that I knew that I could get him a position, and I did.
The attorney was making about $60,000 a year in Arizona, and I got him a position in California paying $130,000 a year shortly after I started working with him. Incredibly, the attorney was very upset with me. He told me that this was not "market" and that the most prestigious firms in Los Angeles were paying attorneys at his class year more money. I told him that (1) he did not have the qualifications to get into a firm like this—not yet—but after some time at the new firm, he would, (2) he did not have the California Bar and the best law firms did not need to take a chance hiring him because they had plenty of applicants who did, and (3) he did not have much law firm experience and the best law firms did not need to take a chance that he did not have the required legal skills, and (4) his law school pedigree was not even as good as the attorneys at the firm he obtained a job with, much less the most prestigious law firms out there.
No one likes to hear this sort of thing. It was not nice of me to say it—but it needed to be said. Instead of taking this advice to heart, the attorney fired me. He said something to the effect of: “I need a legal recruiter who builds me up and makes me feel good, not the other way around.”
He did not realize it but I did believe in him, had fought hard for him, and got him a fantastic opportunity that more than doubled his salary.
Two years later, I looked him up, and he was at the same law firm in Arizona. I tried to help him and make him successful, but he wanted someone to build up his ego and it ended up hurting him. On some level, he may have also sabotaged the opportunity I got him because he did not want to risk failing in a more demanding legal environment and bruising his ego even further.
Listen and Learn
Strangely enough, the attorneys who are more likely to avoid “ego bruising” are often the most accomplished. The worst offenders are partners with good pedigrees, followed by associates from prestigious law firms with prestigious backgrounds. These attorneys are often afraid to apply to multiple firms in various locations and are very nervous about applying to too many firms at one time. They also think they know everything about how to get hired and how the job search works, which holds them back. When they are told what they are doing wrong in their job search and what they need to do, these attorneys refuse to listen. Rather than take advice about what they should be doing, these attorneys often simply "disappear."
Not willing to listen to advice from professionals is crazy. If I were falsely accused of murder, thrown in jail, and given no bail, the last person in the world who I would listen to for legal advice would be myself. I would hire an attorney who knew exactly what they were doing to get me out of the mess I was in. There is no way I could possibly understand what needed to be done by myself. I'm an attorney. I've taken classes in criminal law. But I know my limits, and I would have no clue in the world what I should be doing. Trying to represent myself and make decisions without guidance would be insane.
When someone with experience tries to tell you the best way to do a job search, it is a good idea to listen to them. You do not need to take their advice, of course—but if you do, the odds are better that you will be successful.
Your ability to accept criticism, learn from your mistakes, and constantly improve is not limited to your job. You should always strive to improve your health, fitness, relationships, and more. The concept of constant improvement is important to everything you do in your life. You should do your best to push yourself to get better at everything. Expose yourself to the most challenges you can in every area of your life so that you become an amazing and extraordinary person. Allow yourself to be molded by seeking out people, places, and more that will push you to be the best possible version of you.
As an attorney, it is important to realize the lengths that you may be going to protect your ego. You need to expose yourself to being questioned because this will make you improve. You should never allow yourself to become too comfortable—if you do, the odds are good that you are not growing. People, places, and things that stop growing eventually end up dying.
In business, I have always loved this saying: "Whatever is not managed will deteriorate."
Businesses that do not manage their people or set goals and standards for them eventually go out of business. Every day you hear about and see giant businesses that have failed because they did not question their business methods or their ways of operating. They are overtaken by businesses that question the status quo and do things in a new way. Questioning how things are done is the secret to businesses like Amazon, Uber, and other runaway successes that put the old ways of doing things out of business.
As an attorney and a person, you are no different. You should always question how you are doing things and seek out people who do the same. Accept any criticism you receive but even more importantly, learn from it. Constantly strive to be improving, growing, and getting stronger—because if you do not, you too will be out of business.
About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.
About BCG Attorney Search
BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.