“Death in life is a mode of existence in which one has ceased all play; there are no further striving for titles. All competitive engagement with others has been abandoned. For some, though not for all, death in life is a misfortune, the resigned acceptance of one’s loser status, a refusal to hold any title up for recognition.”

     Finite and Infinite Games, James P. Carse

Why You Will Never Succeed at Practicing Law Until You Understand This One Thing

One of the more disturbing things that I frequently witness among attorneys is when the motivation saps out of them and they start settling for much less than they can become, take jobs that do not challenge them, and walk away from the "game" of trying to be the best attorney they can be.
A. Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes

Most people who do this end up regretting it. I run into former attorneys all the time who tell me they went to a good law school, worked a year or two in a big firm, or did this or that but then gave up. This is the norm.

See also:
I like to speak with attorneys who did not give up. I do not care if you started out at a big firm, small firm, or where you went to law school. What would happen if you set your sights on the moon and tried to be the absolute best you could possibly be at practicing law? How would your life change? The world is full of losers and has-beens. I want to see the winners—the people who never give up and never stop trying. These are the sorts of attorneys I would want representing me. These are the sorts of people who set an example for everyone else of what is possible when you commit to never giving up. There is no reason to ever give up.

See also: Winners and Losers

Have You Given Up Already?

The average attorney is underachieving and consciously looking for less challenge, less work, less competition, and less out of life.

This is one of my favorite quotes:

I bargained with Life for a penny,
And Life would pay no more,
However I begged at evening
When I counted my scanty store;

For Life is a just employer,
He gives you what you ask,
But once you have set the wages,
Why, you must bear the task.

I worked for a menial’s hire,
Only to learn, dismayed,
That any wage I had asked of Life,
Life would have paid.

Jessie B. Rittenhouse (1869-1948)

Incredibly, by the time many attorneys are in their mid-twenties, they have consciously decided to stop playing the game and look for ways to coast by with as few challenges as humanly possible. They stop asking for much out of life. In short, these attorneys have already lost. They are consciously seeking to be losers and not play the game any longer. They no longer expect much out of life.
  • Attorneys who were formerly aggressive and wanted to take on the world take positions with in-house companies, smaller law firms, quit the practice of law, resign from the bar or go inactive, or find themselves in practice settings they most certainly would not be in if they still had a fire in their bellies.
  • Some attorneys stay in large firms or competitive environments, but do so without a sense of passion and achieve far less than they would if they had a drive to succeed. They often strive for reduced hours or of counsel positions. Their lack of passion holds them back, and they do not succeed anywhere near the levels they otherwise would be capable of.
I might as well tell you this right now before you read any further: The truth is that you can do and be anything you set out to do and be in the practice of law. The only thing standing between you and your goals and reaching them is your state of mind—and what you believe about yourself.

Somewhere along the line, you allowed others to psyche you out and make you feel less capable, less entitled, and a less credible competitor for life's rewards. That is exactly what your competitors wanted. Because you allowed it, you came to believe that mediocrity and performing beneath your capabilities is acceptable. You allowed others to continue playing the game and seek success, recognition, fulfillment, and everything that comes with it.

Read more: Understand Your Ultimate Goal

Look around you and see all of the success in the world that is not yours. See the happy families, the attorneys being written about in the news, the attorneys on television, the homes you would like to own, the bank accounts you would like to have, the vacations you would like to take, the titles you would like to earn—and realize that all of this could be yours if you just asked for it. You could have all of this if you did not psyche yourself out and allow others to psyche you out. It is all yours for the taking, but only if you only realize and believe it is.

See also:
Living with Regret

I'm the first to admit that practicing law in a competitive environment can be a real nightmare and not fun. However, very few people who become partners in large law firms or the General Counsels of large corporations or start successful law firms or do any of the other great things you can do with a law degree REGRET IT afterwards. They are PROUD, CONFIDENT, SUCCESSFUL, and HAPPY about what they have done and achieved. They do not regret their lives. The attorneys who fail or allow themselves to be marginalized are the ones who regret not doing more.

See also:
The people who walked away from the practice of law and stopped playing the game are the ones who talk and write articles about how difficult it is, the struggles you must go through to succeed, how cruel law firms can be, and how none of it makes any sense. In short, it is the people who gave up the game—people like me—who will tell you how difficult it is and why practicing law is such a tough profession. Partners inside of major law firms and others succeeding at a high level have stories as well—however, they are so busy succeeding that until something nasty happens to them (and bad stuff happens in all professions), they are going to be more focused on playing the game. The people who are winning at the game are not the ones complaining. It is the people who are losing the game who complain.

Read more:
Under Attack

When an animal wants to intimidate another animal and keep them away from food, a potential mate, or something similar, they growl at the other animal, perhaps bear their teeth, or show other aggressive behavior. This is called intimidation. Some animals get intimidated by other animals, and others do not. When an animal is chasing another animal for food, some animals give up and die, and others do not. While intimidation in the law firm and legal world can take far more complex forms, anyone or anything that intimidates you is doing the exact same thing as a growling, threatening animal in nature.

Life is a game. Survival is a game. Your profession is a game. All professions have various sets of games and ways of operating. The people you are playing the legal game against will try every possible method to psyche you out. Your superiors and peers will do the same. It is an endless game of trying to get you out, so they can achieve more—and keep the bounty for themselves, like animals do.

One of the biggest ways that other attorneys try to psyche other attorneys out is through rumors and manufactured crises. I've seen them all. I've seen attorneys leave the practice of law for some ridiculous reasons:
  • Your personal life outside the office will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
  • Having too many drinks at a Christmas party will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
  • Being late for a meeting will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
  • Having a heart attack, cancer, or any sort of health problem will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
  • Taking too many vacations compared to your peers will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
  • Not having enough “face time” in the office will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
  • Not being aggressive enough in tracking down assignments will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
  • A comment some uptight asshole takes the wrong way will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
  • A consensual affair with someone in the office will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
  • Failing the bar will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
  • A typo on an important legal document will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
  • Posting a social media comment that a partner does not like will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
  • Your desire to not to work with people you find offensive in your firm will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
  • Something you did years ago at a previous firm that simply offended someone but did not cause any damage will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
  • Someone working more hours than you on a project will be used against you in an attempt to permanently take you out of the game.
You know what? If people try to take you out of the attorney game for any of these reasons, the only thing you can do is fight back and not give up. I’ve seen people cower, quit the practice of law, switch firms, move jobs, go into different careers, switch practice settings, move across the country, and more—all because they were intimidated by one of the reasons above.

See related: Fight for the Right to Work

Many times, the person trying to take you out does not even have that much power in the firm. But they will still make you feel that you have committed some sort of mortal sin and must give up on your career and life immediately because of one of these asinine reasons.

Do not listen to this nonsense! Think of most people of any note who have achieved anything of significance in the world—politicians, actors and actresses, sports figures, business people and others. Do you think any of them gave up at the first sign of resistance? Do you believe any of the ridiculous reasons highlighted above would have discouraged them? Powerful people face an incredible amount of resistance before they get where they want to go, including years (perhaps even decades!) of rejection, long hours, fierce opponents, lots of competition, bad press, personal problems, rehab, multiple divorces, bankruptcy and more.

See related:
Learn from the Failures of Others

If you read the Wikipedia entry about virtually anyone who has achieved anything of importance in this world, you will find that their careers were marred by all manner of scandals, rumors, and countless problems. Most of these people also worked incredibly hard, encountering unbelievable resistance and countless failures before achieving any serious success. The same goes for most attorneys who achieve anything. They, too, encounter resistance, failures, and numerous attempts to take them out before they succeed.

See related articles:
Nearly every U.S. president encountered failure and resistance before they succeeded. For example:

After losing the Democratic primary for the Illinois 1st congressional district in 2000, Obama says he was feeling down. He had spent all of his money on the campaign, he had a wife and a child at home with another baby on the way, and was seriously contemplating a career outside of politics after the stinging loss.

A friend asked Obama to join him at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, saying it might cheer him up to be surrounded by like-minded and energetic politicos. Upon arriving in California and attempting to rent a car, his credit card was declined. And his bad luck didn’t just end there.

"I get to the hotel where my friend is ready to go and we go over to the convention and they give me the pass that basically only allows you to be in the halls. The ring around the auditorium doesn't actually allow you to see anything," Obama recalls.

The weekend, which was supposed to get him back in the politics mindset, continued turning for the worst when a friend tried to get him into the convention after-parties, and bouncers kept turning him away, saying they didn't know his name and couldn't recognize his face.

"I felt as if I was a third wheel in this whole thing," Obama tells Axelrod. "I ended up leaving early, and that was the stage when I was really questioning whether I should be in politics."

After this experience, Obama, aided by Axelrod, looked at the election results in a different light and realized that there was a path for him to succeed. Four years later, Obama returned to the DNC and gave the keynote speech, a speech that elevated his status within the Democratic party as a rising star.

"If you had won that congressional race," Axelrod said to Obama in the interview, "we wouldn't be sitting in the Roosevelt Room right now."

(Full story can be viewed at https://www.cnn.com/2016/12/27/politics/president-obama-axe-files-credit-card-dnc/index.html.)

Years later, Donald Trump would be mocked by President Obama at the White House Correspondents’ dinner:

Donald Trump is here tonight. Now I know that he’s taken some flak lately. But no one is happier—no one is prouder—to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter: Like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac? All kidding aside, obviously we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. For example—no seriously, just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice, at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around, but you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership, and so ultimately you didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meat Loaf, you fired Gary Busey. And these are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well-handled, sir. Well-handled. Say what you will about Mr. Trump, he certainly would bring some change to the White House. Let’s see what we’ve got up there.

Obama again addressed Trump at the 2015 dinner. And this time all he said was: “And Donald Trump is still here,” he said. “Still.”

There is no doubt that politics require a thick skin. Just go to the grocery store checkout lane anywhere in the country, and you will see headlines with countless rumors about public figures. Do you think any of these people give up when they see these rumors? Incredibly, some of them do—but most do not.
If you put these demotivated attorneys on a basketball court or in front of a video game, or gave them tasks related to a skill or hobby outside of work that they enjoy, they might very well light up with all of the enthusiasm you would expect from someone who is in their element. They may become quite competitive and outgoing. However, when it comes to practicing law, these same attorneys parse along without the drive and enthusiasm needed to reach their full potential—or give up altogether.

This is nonsense and insane.

If you are motivated in one area of your life, you can just as easily be motivated in another area.

Reality Check

One of the most significant causes of attorney unhappiness is unrealistic expectations.

You believed that if you got a law degree, you would get a good job and be happy. You believed that if you worked hard in a law firm and made partner, you would be happy. You believed there would be no competition, and it would be easy. You believed you would not have to work extremely hard. You believed it would be simple to find clients. You believed that because you graduated from a top law school and got in the 170s on your LSATs, did a clerkship and got a job at a prestigious law firm, the world would reward you with money, security, success, and more right from the start.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The further you attempt to go, the more problems you will have. Do you think the President of the United States has problems? Do you think the CEOs of the largest companies in the world have problems?

The belief that being happy and healthy means an absence of problems is insane. The only people who do not have any problems are dead. The more alive, vibrant, and successful you are, the more problems you will have.

Consider these realities:
  • The more money you have, the more likely you will be to get sued and have others try to take it away.
  • The more success you have at work, the more envy this will inflame in others, and the more people will want what you have.
  • The better you are at anything, the more others will try and tear you down.
I’ve been there. People have come at me with everything they’ve got trying to take away my money, my home, and more by suing me. They try to take away my respect by writing bad things about me. They take something I've written completely out of context and turn them into national headlines—all because I am out there getting shit done and succeeding. This goes with the territory. Confronted with all of this, many people simply give up. I've made mistakes and I know there are lots of competitors and others who do not like me taking away their business or hearing me tell it like it is. They would like for me to give up. It is an attractive prospect when things get bad—if you are a loser and stop playing the game, no one messes with you. However, it is what others want us to do.

People only mess with people who are getting shit done.

It is completely natural to assume that you will experience tons of problems while getting shit done. Winners never quit, and quitters never win. If you are going to be happy and successful in your life, you need to develop coping mechanisms for all of your problems and learn to overcome them. I cannot tell you how to do this because everyone is different—but winning at these problems needs to be your priority, not wallowing in them. You should learn how to enjoy solving problems and realize that everyone is playing the same game.

See also: Your Job Is a Game-Make Your Opponents External

Can You Cope?

Many people become unmotivated and give up and retreat because they reach the conclusion that the game they are playing to try to defeat perceived problems—not getting a job in the right law firm, not getting advanced in the right law firm, not getting enough clients, having enemies at work, not getting a large enough bonus, not getting a good enough review and so forth—is not worth playing.

Most attorneys who give up playing the game also develop negative beliefs, such as:
  • It is too difficult to find a good position.
  • It is not worth putting in the hours.
  • It is too difficult to get clients.
  • Everyone I am working with is my enemy.
It is not the problems themselves, however, that make people withdraw and stop playing the game: It is not having the ability to cope with these problems when they come up. If you do not have coping mechanisms or the right information, then these problems can easily defeat and demotivate you.

Coping is extremely important.

I have lots of ways of coping—and you need to find them, too. I like to exercise a lot. Exercise helps me while I am getting shit done because it clears my mind and the tension in my body. I exercise every single day because it helps keep me fit and able to deal with the jealous, dysfunctional, and competitive weirdos coming at me while I am out there doing my best. I also watch my diet. I meditate. I sit in the sauna every day. I used to love alcohol on the weekends as a way to relax, but that has too high a price to pay in terms of making me too tired to get shit done the next day, so I do not drink anymore (which actually makes me more alert, focused, and interested in the game, so I recommend that). I write down daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly goals. I swim in the ocean several times a week. I go to church. I once saw George W. Bush speak, and he said he reads the Bible every day—I liked that idea, so I do that too before bed. I spend a lot of time with my kids. I go on vacation. I journal. I write articles like this one. I go to business conferences where I can unplug for a few days. I like home improvement projects. I read a lot of nonfiction books about business, spirituality, and other topics that interest me. I play with my dogs. I watch a lot of true crime shows on television. I watch biographies about important businesspeople. I speak with business coaches. I go to peer groups. Doing all of this keeps me in the game. If I did not distract myself, I doubt I could continue playing.

I also believe that having the right information about the game is very important. This is one reason why I read nonfiction—much of the books I read are about the game. This is also why I go to peer groups—these groups are about the game. This is why I go to conferences—these conferences are about the game. This is why I watch biographies about influential businesspeople—they are about the game. All of these coping mechanisms give me perspective so I can play the game.

Read more:
In terms of your game, you need to understand and get the right information as well. Then it will be much easier to counter the negative beliefs I previously listed:
  • It is not that difficult to find the correct position. You need to know the rules for doing so and how to do so. If you spend a day on this site and really study the articles, you would understand what you need to do to find the right position.
  • You do not need to stop playing the game because of the hours. Hours are not as bad as they sound. It takes at least 10,000 hours to understand how something is done—getting better at it takes even more. When you are young, working lots of hours will train you to become better and learn your craft. When you are older, these same hours produce money for your children's' education, bring you a step closer to a partnership, give you more job security, and many other positive things if you choose to frame them that way.
  • It is not difficult to get clients. You need to understand the rules of getting clients and what people do to get clients. You do not need to be a salesman or anything of the sort. You just need to learn and follow the examples of others.
  • Yes, everyone you are working with is an enemy—and if they are not now, they will become your enemy if the circumstance is in their favor. This is how it works. Cope and deal with it. The only people without enemies are six feet under.

See related:
There are many people out to get you when you are practicing law, but that is true of almost every profession. It is also like this in life. The government is out to get you—they are always going to tax your property, your earnings, and whatever else they can. The police are out to get you because they want to catch you speeding and parking illegally to issue fines. Regardless of where you turn, there are going to be people out to get you—get over it and move on with your life.

See related: How to Not Fail, Die or Go Crazy Practicing Law: How I've Seen Attorneys Find Enjoyment and Satisfaction in the Legal Profession

Motivate Yourself and Success Will Follow

If you are going to achieve everything you are capable of achieving, you need drive and passion. You need to believe in the same sort of future you believed in when you were young and decided to become an attorney. You need to get up and believe in what is possible and what you can do and make of yourself. The only thing that is going to make the life you want and deserve possible is having the motivation to move forward and take the sort of action necessary to grow and become someone better.

Years ago, I was working with a business coach who attempted to put all sorts of rules into place for how our recruiters recruited. He could not believe that I was not doing things like listening in and recording their phone calls, making them send reports to me about what they did each day, and other burdensome things that you might do with a group of uneducated salespeople. Despite this lack of micromanagement, most of the recruiters were doing better year after year. Some were making more placements than an entire placement firm of 10+ legal recruiters made in a year—the company was filled with superstars who were achieving all of this without constant management. Revenues were rising, profits were increasing, and things were going well in all respects.

See related: How to Choose Recruiters, Executive Search, and Recruitment Agencies (and How They Work)

This business coach had a background in working for large corporations where people were assumed to be unmotivated and needed to be driven by reports on their performance. He also had experience working for law firms where people were rewarded based on the hours they worked and the amount of business the attorneys generated.

After working with me for a year, he concluded that the reason the company’s recruiters and others did so well was because they were internally motivated to succeed—but even that made no sense to him. In other words, there was something inside of them that made them want to succeed, which pushed them to succeed and made them feel like they could do anything they set their minds to. I have made business mistakes—but the one thing I believe I have done right (more times than not) was to hire recruiters who are self-motivated. Almost every recruiter I found came to me when they were looking for a job and were accepted as recruiting candidates. Most had near-perfect scholastic records in college. All were employable by major law firms and would have made excellent attorneys.

What made these recruiters different, however, was that they all had outstanding personalities—just not the personalities that would make them happy being attorneys. They were giving personalities. They were excited and interested in meeting different types of people. They were very self-motivated, driven and knew exactly who they were. Their records showed a consistent level of motivation and achieving things on their own. They also did not care what people thought of them. They had something inside of them that enabled them to be eternally optimistic. Like most attorneys, they were not risk-averse and believed they could do and achieve whatever they sought to do and achieve. But they were also able to believe in other people—and that is hugely important.

I typically interview at least 20 potential recruiters before making one an offer.

In contrast, someone who is not suited to this position is typically not sure if they should be recruiting at all. They may be self-motivated, but they generally are quite calculating and not willing to risk their time or future for the prospect of not getting an immediate reward. They may not be interested in people and may be more interested in themselves. They do not have the personality for this sort of work.

Being a legal recruiter is difficult. However, our recruiters succeed because of their self-motivation. Their strength comes from within. Self-motivation is the key to doing well at this job or any job. Self-motivation is the key to success.

There was a poster in the weight room of my high school gym when I was growing up that I will never forget: “IT IS NOT THE SIZE OF THE DOG IN THE FIGHT THAT MATTERS, IT IS THE SIZE OF THE FIGHT IN THE DOG.”

See also: How Important Is It for Attorneys to Work at a Major Law Firm?
For the past few decades, my father has told me how fortunate he is to have retired in his mid-fifties. At first, I admired this and thought it seemed like a good thing. He was happy to have retired because he was not enjoying working for a large corporation.

Many people look forward to retirement and the idea of not working. Many people who retire, however, do not end up as happy in retirement as they were when they were working.

When you look around you and see many of the most important and influential people in the world—politicians, businesspeople, writers, actors, and others—they are often working well into their golden years. They are not retired and would not consider retiring or even be interested in doing so. Most work until they die. They are motivated, active, enthusiastic, and vital. They are getting up every day and achieving things and doing something with their lives.

See related article: Why the Best Actors and Attorneys Are Exactly Alike

Lawyers can and should be like this, too. Some lawyers might be motivated to practice forever. If a lawyer likes what they are doing, it is something they look forward to, and they may continue doing it regardless of age. You should not give up on your career or your life. A career gives you a station in the world, the ability to interact with other people, income, and the ability to continue improving. Do not let others kill your dreams and spirit. Your spirit is what makes you who you are.

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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.