Why Your Family and Social Background Will Determine Your Happiness and Success as an Attorney More than Your Academics or Firm | BCGSearch.com

Why Your Family and Social Background Will Determine Your Happiness and Success as an Attorney More than Your Academics or Firm

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Harrison Barnes' Legal Career Advice Podcast - Episode 40

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  • It is common for people to go to excellent law schools and start in significant firms, then have lousy legal careers that go nowhere.
  • You can have every advantage on a silver platter.
  • But none of this will matter if you do not have the values and a perception of the world that supports your legal career.

 
It is common for people to go to excellent law schools and start in significant firms, then have lousy legal careers that go nowhere. You can have every advantage on a silver platter. But none of this will matter if you do not have the values and a perception of the world that supports your legal career.

One of my formative experiences was when my father was going through his second divorce. He was living in the basement, and his ex-wife and her son and daughter were living upstairs. I was also living upstairs, and it was a strange situation because it was a contentious divorce, and her family was not talking to me. I needed to use the kitchen and pass them each day in the halls and the house, and it was not pleasant at all. There was so much hostility, and as a high school student, I was not enjoying myself. I was in an environment that did not accept me, and it was very unpleasant in all respects. Feeling like an outsider in your own house is not at all pleasant.


One day I was speaking with my father outside. I went to get something to eat, and my stepbrother said to his mother and sister: “It’s great getting a home-cooked meal from someone who cares about you, huh? It’s nice having a mom that does.”

My dad was somewhat depressed about the situation and his life. He confided that he was not only upset by the divorce. In his early 50s, he felt like he had not achieved as much with his life as his peers from college and law school had. He felt unsuccessful compared to them, and this bothered him. He felt like a failure because of his failed second marriage. He also felt like a failure because of how he compared to his peers. He had gone to Harvard for college and the University of Michigan Law School until he flunked out.

What struck me at that age was how he allowed the way he saw himself compared to others to influence his happiness. I was also in a challenging environment that was not making me feel right. When we are around others who do not give us their love, or their approval, that does not make us feel good. Most of us need the support of others to feel good about ourselves. We strive to do well.

There are many reasons to try hard to get into the best colleges, law schools, and social groups. Yet the material you learn is not likely to be much different from college to college. What differs are the expectations of those you are around and what is important to them. If you are around people with high hopes, you will desire to fit in, get their approval, and be seen positively. The more competitive our peers, the worse we will feel when we do not meet their expectations. The more demanding your peer group, the harder you push yourself, and the higher your status will be.

People who achieve more define doing well according to a higher standard set by their peers.

People who work in the best law firms often achieve more in the long run because of this definition.

When I was younger, I had an asphalt business in the Detroit area. I learned early on there were only certain types of people I could hire that would work out. There were also certain types of people I would hire that did not work out.

The most obvious suspects to hire were kids that I knew. All around me, there were plenty of people willing to work—kids my age—that I could hire from all places. For example, I often went to parties on a Friday night, stood around a keg, met people, and asked them to work in the morning. They often would. I would pick them up and take them out for a grueling day of work in the hot sun, on un-sheltered blacktop parking lots, usually in the middle of nowhere to do nasty, dirty work. It was common for workers to disappear and leave during the jobs and rare that they would last more than a day or two. We would often be sunburned and need to use gasoline to get the tar off us.

Thankfully, there were always parties on Saturday night as well. I would then go to these parties and find people to help there too. The process would repeat itself. The weekends were when I got the most work done because I could recruit people at parties. The week was much harder.

The problem with hiring people from my neighborhood, in the same social circles, was that they often felt they were above doing the sort of work that I did. They did not like working for peers. They did not get the same rewards I did for doing the hard work. They did not want to be seen working for a peer. They were concerned with how others viewed them. Their vision of themselves did not involve doing hard labor. They wanted a more straightforward job with more available rewards. Many seemed to feel they were much better than what they were asked to do. They wanted to look high-status in the eyes of their peers.

Because it was difficult to get people from my same social circles to do the work, I started going into the inner city of Detroit and various blue-collar neighborhoods. It was not difficult to find people to do the work there. The people would appreciate the work. They would do better work. They would show up for work each day. They would have no pretensions that they were better than the work. Instead of feeling bad about themselves for doing the sort of work they were doing, they felt good about the work. They found happiness in a situation that made peers and others from a better economic environment, not like the work.

I paid people in the blue-collar neighborhoods I was recruiting for much better than others were paying in the area. In contrast to what my peers thought about the same sort of work, working-class people saw working for me as an excellent opportunity. Because they and the people around them believed in the work, their self-image was supported by doing the job. They felt good about what they were doing. As someone running a business and trying to get the work done, I realized I was better off hiring the working class.
 
  • One type of person believed in the work, and their peers supported it and made them feel good about the work.
  • Another kind of person did not support the job, and their peers did not make them feel good about the work.
 
How others see us and our work is a significant determinant in how we see ourselves. It is essential for most of us to feel judged and seen in a positive light by others. We allow our sense of self and worth to be influenced by how we believe others see us. In short, we want to be loved by others. A sense of needing love, earning love, and being seen in a positive light by others is vital. We base our self-worth on how others see us.

When I was hiring people, they would often not work out because working in my asphalt business was not the sort of job they felt made them look good. They did not feel good about the job because the job did not appear high-status to others. High-status jobs mean one thing to people of one background compared to another.

Over the past quarter-century, I have noticed that one of the most competitive and demanding law firms in the country to get into, Cravath Swaine & Moore, hires many people from the University of Iowa. They are from middle-class to blue-collar backgrounds. A law firm like Cravath could employ people from Harvard, Yale, and other law schools of that caliber all day – and they do hire people from those schools – but they also hire people who do not come from those sorts of backgrounds.

Yet, in my limited experience, I have seen many attorneys from the University of Iowa do better in Cravath and long-term in law firms than many graduates from the very best law schools. The people from Iowa believe that getting a position with Cravath is a great thing and makes them look significant to their peers and themselves. In contrast, many people from better schools look down on working hard and the firm’s demands and seem more likely to give up. It could be anecdotal what I am noting, but it looks like there is something there. People appreciate what they have and are given according to different value systems.

The typical graduate of Yale Law School may be more likely to value being a professor, or public service, or working for a nonprofit than the graduate of an average law school. Their peers believe this is the best sort of job to have, and professors teach this to them as well. There is also a belief they pick up that working in a law firm is not as prestigious. Accordingly, these attorneys end up not being happy in major law firms because their peer group does not approve of them.

Most of us need to have status in the eyes of others. The people we want to have status in front of include our friends, peers, former classmates, professors, and others. This quest for status determines what happens to us in our lives. The higher and greater status we need to have to be worthy of love and approval from others, the harder we will try to reach that status. The worse we will feel about ourselves if we do not achieve that. Our perception of what makes someone successful and what we need to be successful will differ according to our upbringing, friends, surroundings, and background.

I have noticed that many of the most successful men and women out there tend to need to prove something to parents. Their parents may have made the child feel that more love or affection would be forthcoming—or blanket approval would be given—if certain success milestones were reached. But, this approval rarely comes – even when the child grows up and far eclipses what the parent did.

As people, we do not necessarily know or understand our values unless reflected by others. Most of us are told our values by our parents, who reflect it to us either with approval or disapproval and set expectations for us about what is and is not important in our lives. Our identities are formed by the way others see us and their judgments of us. If people approve of us, then we develop feelings of our worth – and if they do not, then we may start to believe that we do not have worth. Different environments will reflect our values to us, depending on the sort of people in these environments.

One of the biggest causes of unhappiness in our lives and careers is when our internal value system dictates that we need to be a certain type of person to be successful, and we are not that person. Success means many things to different people. It could mean that you are in a happy family around people who love and approve of you. Alternatively, it may mean a certain level of economic or social achievement. It may mean working with certain people, for a particular firm, or having a certain title.

Most of our upsets in the world come from when we do not measure up to our value system, which is often determined by the values of people around us whom we compare ourselves to on an ongoing basis. If we do not achieve what we should accomplish in our peers’ eyes, then we are often depressed and disappointed.

See also:  
One of my best friends in high school died of alcoholism in his forties. He drank so much, his heart stopped. His father was a very successful builder in Michigan – as was his grandfather. His older brother was brilliant and went to the University of Michigan. He went to a private school where most of his peers had done well in high school and gone to competitive colleges, were excellent athletes, and did other notable things. It was mainly because of the people he surrounded himself with that he never felt successful enough. Rather than play a game he did not feel he could win, he dropped out and started smoking a lot of pot, drinking, and feeling sorry for himself.

When it came time to apply to colleges, he thought he would go to Michigan State since his family had endowed a professorship. But, the school did not flag his application as the child of an important alumnus. He ended up not getting until the school’s error was brought to their attention by the family. He then got in but was so upset that he instead went to the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he got in without any special treatment. Once he was there, he continued drinking and using drugs and was asked to leave the school after one year of getting abysmal grades. His downward spiral continued as he felt worse about himself and got more and more negative feedback from his parents, peers, and family.

Like many others, this guy would likely still be alive if he did not hold himself to the high standards of the people around him or judge his self-worth compared to them. His thermostat was set at a high level, and he believed he had to be something special, better than others, and succeed at a certain level to merit love, attention, and value from his environment. In contrast, had he set a lower bar for himself, he likely would have been much happier.

Not too long ago, I dated a lovely woman who was smart, motivated, nurturing, and beautiful and had all sorts of important characteristics that made her a wonderful person in all respects. I loved and cared about her very much. But, while she had all these excellent characteristics, she also had a severe alcohol problem. She would drink every night, and on the weekends, she would often drink all day. At night she would have a “happy hour” where she would drink a bottle of wine or two while talking to me on the phone and becoming incoherent. I did not enjoy this, and she would be angry when I would try to get off the phone or avoid talking to her.

She was very depressed and unhappy despite being hugely successful in her career, having all the money she needed, a very beautiful house, car, and other possessions. She had a child and was an excellent mother as well. The problem with her, however, was that she too was an alcoholic like my other friend.

She was part of a devout Mormon family that took their religion very seriously. She had gone to Brigham Young University and done well there. She studied theology, and her bookcases were stacked with all sorts of religious texts that had been underlined and had notes through them, and post-it notes cluttering each page.

Her family expected her to go to church each week, participate in the church, and more. She had a child out of wedlock, was not married when she was younger, and had left the religion because she felt it was too sexist. This resulted in her being disapproved of by her family and her peers. She did not feel good about herself and, as a consequence, started drinking after she left the church. She was depressed and felt bad about herself. She was continually finding fault with the world and unhappy.

Even after leaving the church, however, the church had a support system where they always looked out for her. People from church would stop by when I was over in the evenings to see how she was doing. They were friendly and kind and nonjudgmental but genuinely cared about her welfare. They would text and call. While she seemed to appreciate their concern and interest in her, it was also a constant reminder that she was not living up to the Mormon value system they had for her and what they expected of her.

After I realized that I could not live with her alcohol problem and we broke up, she ended up going back to the church, started training for a Marathon, and shortly after that stopped drinking altogether. Her family’s value system mandated that she be part of the church and live an obedient life, and as long as she did not do this, she would not feel worthy of their love or happiness. She was out-of-kilter with the value system she expected that she would need to follow to be happy.

My stepbrother, the son of my stepmom who was not very kind to me, ended up going to Michigan State after returning home for a few years in the Navy. He went for two years and then dropped out. To him, getting into Michigan State was a great thing. He had a GED in high school and left high school at the age of 16 to enroll in the Navy. He got disciplined in the Navy, felt like a success, and was grateful for his background compared to the other Navy kids.

He felt incredibly successful in having gotten a position in accounting with General Motors after having completed only a few years of college. He ended up becoming a successful executive and having a perfect life. He could not believe his luck as someone whose mother was a secretary who had never graduated from high school, who then managed to get two years of Michigan State paid for by the Navy. Today, he has a family, a lovely house, a good job and is happy. My other friend is dead.

Whom we compare ourselves to and our value system often determines what happens to us and how happy we are. The value systems we hold for ourselves and beliefs we have in whether we measure up determine how hard we try and also how happy we allow ourselves to be based on our level of achievement.

See also:
When I started hiring people out of blue-collar neighborhoods and working-class backgrounds, I began to notice something that I had not seen as much of with the people I had hired from the middle to upper-middle-class environments: Most of them seemed much happier. They would sing while they worked, laugh more, worry less, and have fewer pretensions. Most of these people were, as a general rule, much happier than people I met who were not from these sorts of backgrounds. They had primarily accepted their roles in life and the job market and seemed not to be content with where they were. Many of these people were quite pleased to have the opportunity to go into charming neighborhoods to work, see the water, and get out of their areas.

I have seen countless people drive themselves to near insanity when they cannot meet the expectations of the people who raised them. I once hired a guy who grew up in an orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, where he was part of his community. He was religious but did not want to commit to the level his parents and community did. He left home at nineteen and never returned. His parents thought there was something very wrong with him for not wanting to grow a beard, marry in his religion, and dress in the traditional dress of his faith. He did not want to be reminded of this regularly and stopped talking with his parents. I believe in no small part, this drove him crazy. He ended up resigning from the bar and spent several years running around Asia, not doing anything. Not being able to live by the values he was told would make him happy made him unhappy.

One of the messages that I write about, and that surrounds us in this world, is that anyone who wants to and tries hard enough can be successful. Not being poor, getting a good education, and so forth is within your control. The world is a meritocracy, and the only person responsible for your achievement is you. You can be anyone you choose to be. Unlike people in feudal and other societies, you are not held back by where you were born and your social class. Wealth, success, and power are all within your reach – you can have anything you put your mind to.

Some people choose to make their mark in business. Others decide to make a mark in entertainment. Still, others want education as a springboard to get ahead.

Law schools use the LSAT, and colleges use the SAT to admit people based on merit. Everyone takes the same test, so admission to top programs is not based on birthright. It is equal.

We talk about and aggressively argue for diversity, equal rights, and more to make sure the playing field is as balanced and fair as possible. If some groups do not have the best test scores, we may need to level the playing field even more and admit certain groups without using the same measuring sticks — into schools, employers, and others.

When society and the economic playing field are still not equal, we argue to abolish the SAT and tests for college admission (as many schools such as Harvard and the University of Chicago have recently done). Everything is about having equal access to wealth, prestige, and success based on our merit – this is what we want and believe that we should have.

The problem with a meritocracy is that it makes people responsible for their success, so many feel very left out if they are not able to achieve it. Society can give you access to all the education in the world, but if you do not achieve what you expect to, you are left feeling like my father — someone given certain advantages who did not reach their potential. You may be like many in society who believe success is impossible regardless of the advantages you are given.

If we are not as successful as we should be, we think there must be something wrong with the system, and meritocracy is not alive and well. We then see the need to strike out at the system and tear it down if it does not give us what we want. Maybe the real solution is to tear the whole system down, and the symbols of the system we perceive are holding us back.

The entire conflict within ourselves and society is based on the feeling that we are not living up to what we feel we should be. If we are not succeeding and getting what we want from society, we may blame politicians, large companies, groups in power, and others. Blaming others takes away our responsibility to achieve and reach the levels of success we believe we should have and places the burden on others to make us successful.

Here is a fact: You will never succeed by making others responsible for your success. You need to figure out how to do this on your own.

I read with interest a story about Steve Bing recently. Bing jumped off a luxury high rise in Los Angeles at the age of 55 because he was depressed about his lot. Bing attended Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles (typically regarded as the most prestigious high school in Los Angeles), attended Stanford University (until he dropped out to be a film producer his junior year). When he was eighteen years old, he inherited $600-million. Bing had a child with the British actress Elizabeth Hurley, was friends with Bill Clinton, and traveled in all the best social circles. He was a benefactor of various charities and very well-liked. He also was an alcoholic, had drug problems, and had never even met his two children (the second was with Lisa Bonder, the former wife of the billionaire Kirk Kerkorian).

Despite having so much money, being in the right social circles and more, Bing was not a happy guy. What makes someone with so much so unhappy? It is often that the person they believe they should be does not match the person they feel like they are inside. People may not only love themselves because of what they think they need to do and be to order to merit their love, but they may also believe that being loved by others requires them to be a certain sort of person.

A girl was working for me not too long ago whose husband was a lawyer who left a high-paying job with a law firm to start his firm.

“Why did he do that?” I asked her.

“He said that no Persian guy would even work for someone else more than a few years,” she said.

All around Los Angeles, there are many families from Iran that came over in the late 1970s to early 1980s and settled in Beverly Hills and a few other suburbs around Los Angeles. Many people from this group of immigrants have a reputation for being very good in business—especially in real estate in Los Angeles. Just as certain religious groups have expectations for their followers, do specific ethnic communities — like my former employee who was raised an Orthodox Jew—have certain expectations for their members?

After this girl’s comment about her husband, I realized that in the two law firms I had worked in all three Persian guys I had known started law firms after a few years – and then businesses (each in real estate) after that. Coincidence? I suddenly realized that I had even hired a Persian lawyer to work for me after she graduated from UCLA Law School, and she left me after six months and started her law firm.

I did not think anything more of this until a few months later when I talked to a young Persian lawyer, and he told me that he did not want to stay too long at his next firm because “No Persian wants to work for someone forever.”

I have no idea if any of this is true about people from Iran not wanting to work in law firms long term, and my experience is limited. It is all self-reported to me just by people from this group and based on limited observation. I’m sure some will call me names for pointing out what was self-reported to me, and I observed. Still, I believe that individual families, groups, people from various schools, cities, states, and other areas have certain expectations they gain from the people around them that color how they approach the world and what it takes for them to feel successful.

I am not sure this is always the best thing.

What if I was uniquely suited to be an attorney and work in a large law firm? What if everyone in my family believed that being a law firm attorney was bad and not something I should aspire to? What if I learned my friends, family, and others that I needed to be an entertainer? What would happen to me, then? The odds are good that you might expect me to become an entertainer.

I have noticed that children often realize the unrealized dreams and ambitions of the parents. Tiger Woods’ father wanted to be a golfer, for example. There are countless examples of parents who wanted to be actors, athletes, lawyers, doctors, and more who never realized these ambitions—but their children did. The parents likely held this as an ideal recipe for success and happiness, and the children bit and did what their parents did, only better. As I mentioned earlier, my father went to Michigan Law School and flunked out. I ended up going to law school, did not flunk out, and become a lawyer. Maybe a small part of me wanted to fix the problems with my family history?

Your values come from the people around you. Your happiness is often not dependent upon your outlook, but that of the people around you. The people around you form your feelings about what is necessary to make you successful.

Our communities and the people we surround ourselves with color our values. You get different values depending on where you live, whom you spend time with, the work you do, the peer groups you are a part of, your background, and how you were raised.

I heard someone who grew up in a poor neighborhood say that the only options he had were to be a professional athlete, musician, or a drug dealer. Those were the values his community gave him and the expectations that existed there—that was his value system. If he had grown up in a prosperous neighborhood, there would have been different values.

I see people all the time who enter law firms and do not have the values to succeed there. Not because they are not smart enough, but because they do not understand the system and what is required of them. You will not succeed unless your value system supports you doing whatever you think you should be doing.

There is so much unhappiness in the world among people whose careers and lives are out of alignment with the people they think they should be. If you surround yourself with a specific type of person, you may be continuously reminded that you should be a different sort of person than the one you are, and this may not appeal to you. You may not want to be reminded of this.

When I was growing up, I had many family problems that were difficult for me to process. There were all the usual suspects—divorce, substance abuse, stepfamilies, and other stuff. Because of this, I consciously held myself back and chose friends who were also going through issues. I did not associate with the sorts of kids who would have reminded me I could be a better person. I wanted to stew in my sorrow and issues. When I got into college, I did the same thing and joined the fraternity where the most troubled (a.k.a., the wildest) kids were. It took me a long time before I could process issues in my past that haunted me and become able to start living by a better value system.
 
  • How many of us have withdrawn from life, are under-challenging ourselves, settling, and not being the sorts of people we are capable of being because we are afraid of reminding ourselves of our values?
  • How many people are depressed, unhappy, and abusing their bodies and minds because they cannot live up to their internal value systems?
  • How many of us are running away from life and others because we cannot confront these internal value systems?
 
Despite others influencing our values, we also can shape our values and choose the ones we want. We can develop new values by associating with certain types of people and holding ourselves to certain standards. We can study and expose ourselves to various ideas that give us the value systems we want. Everyone is an individual and does not necessarily need to live by the values of others. You should form your values as an individual as well.

When Anthony Robbins was younger, he was invited to be part of a group of important men who flew around the world on private jets to associate and discuss ideas. It was a membership group, and to go on the first trip, he had to pay something like a $250,000 annual membership, and he did not have the money handy. I remember when he told the person who invited him that he thought it was expensive. The person who asked him said to him, “regardless of what you may know about self-improvement, nothing will change you for the better like the people you spend your time with and associate with. The values and ideas you pick up from them are worth more than it will cost you to spend time with them.”

According to Robbins, who is still part of that group, it was by far the best investment he ever made and changed his life more than anything he ever learned by reading books. People and the values we pick up from them change us more than anything.

The dynamic going on beneath the surface of each one of our existences is this: Am I worthy of love from myself and others? If you do not feel worthy of love, you may have made the mistake of allowing others and the world to do a number on your mind with their value systems. Their voices may be a constant presence in your head, questioning your every move and value to the world. That is not fair to do to yourself.

Your real value to the world can only be realized when you abolish others’ expectations and allow yourself to be happy with whatever you choose to be. You need to have a value system that makes you happy and helps you be satisfied with who you are – but you also need to realize that the values you choose will determine what happens to you.

See also:  

About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. His most recent contribution to the legal community is Outplacement Attorney Resources (OAR.com), which directly teaches attorneys and law students the best ways to find legal jobs. 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.
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