Some Notes On Excellence


Anthony Guidice

Some Notes On Excellence

Your job today tells me nothing of your future—

your use of your leisure today tells me just what your tomorrow will be.

- Robert H. Jackson

A law professor friend of mine sent me a copy of a law student's question earlier this morning. It got me thinking. There is something I've been meaning to address about that kind of complacency. I've been thinking about it a long time.

I don't think anyone can be a good attorney unless they very badly want to be an attorney. You must want to use that formidable power to help people with difficult, desperate problems. That has to be the primary impetus for any would-be lawyer, not money; not getting a job. Lawyers aren’t mercenaries. We don't matter-of-factly take on this power just to earn a buck any way we can. If you regard yourself as a potential hired gun, you dangerously miss the point. You could do any potential clients or employers a terrible disservice.

But if you commit yourself seriously to the law, there's always an inner barometer that will tell you what to do - ethically, morally. The rest is just working knowledge and procedure. I told kids back in my law school days that some of them probably shouldn't have families. And they certainly shouldn't have children. Because being a good lawyer - a good lawyer - takes enormous commitment. It's exhausting. Sometimes you can't also commit to a family. There isn't enough time. I knew plenty of lawyers at the grievance commission who worked there because they also wanted time for their families - they could leave at 5:30. But all of them - while they were working - worked furiously. And the ironic part is, when you commit yourself completely to the law, eventually money isn't a problem at all. It becomes an afterthought. But if money is the goal, the purpose is tainted. Lawyering isn’t a business, it’s a profession.

This is why I always say that AILA[1] is very dangerous. They place an alarming emphasis on money and getting money. Their unspoken but obvious mission - bilking the membership out of as much money as possible - by osmosis affects ignorant unknowing members. Lawyers who follow AILA too closely slowly start seeing money as the first priority, like the unknowing frog in the boiling pot. In this respect AILA is an insidious organization. Ethics, trust, propriety, and dignity take a back seat. Just look at what AILA does, not what they say. What they say is that ethics and client responsibility and competence are all-important. What they do is strive tirelessly to get our money. That's the mission they're consumed with. That's why there is this continual shameless self-promotion. AILA misses the point. And they advance a common problem in the legal profession: a lack of lawyers.

Yes, there’s a lack of lawyers: good lawyers. The top 10% of immigration lawyers do 90% of the work. The remaining 90% are left to fight and unethically undermine each other for the remaining 10%. Almost all of that 90% are concerned about money first and foremost. Chase a cat and you'll never catch it. Forego your proper duty to chase money and you’re a skunk.

There’s a very simple answer to the problems facing young lawyers today. It's not easy, but it's very simple: commit to excellence. I mean really committing to it, not just talking about it like some of the 90% (who can talk) do. Lawyers in the top 10% really have no competition. But being excellent takes a lot of work: hours of study that you can't bill for and that no one ever sees. Very few people commit to this; it's too slow for this instantaneous Internet mobile-phone generation. Achieving real excellence is more like farming. You can't “cram” for farming by focusing exclusively on harvesting the crop, and ignoring everything else until the fall. Ridiculous, eh? Lots and lots of work is done first: plowing, planting, watering, fertilizing, maintenance. All that work costs money and time, and the farmer gets nothing for it. And sometimes, even after all that work, nature steps in and destroys the crop and you get no harvest! What then? Well, you just start again next spring, start with plowing the field... There's nothing else you can do.

If you apply this philosophy, the rewards are enormous. It's slow, difficult, discouraging at times, but it's the only way to succeed. That's a singular point - it's the only way to succeed. This is not "get by" stuff; these are not "ham and egg" practitioner ingredients. This is not for bottom-feeders trolling for clients in the Murphy building or in detention centers. This is Robert Jackson stuff. This is delighting in the law and law practice, and seeing the hours of hard work as a privilege. This is when you're so proud to be an attorney that you get choked up thinking about it, eh?

If you make a habit of this you'll always have bigger and bigger and bigger harvests. Ultimately, more than you can ever use. Anyone that's really effective and excellent does this. There's no other way to properly practice law. But when lawyers make money their center, they constantly teeter on an unethical precipice. Not good. If students gasp when they read this, then they should really do something else. The law is just too demanding to regard casually.

And excellence is a lifelong commitment. It never stops. Your excellence bucket has a 1/8" hole in the bottom. You have to constantly keep it filled. Early in an interview, when a client might say to me, for example "how much do you charge for spousal adjustment," I tell them that's the wrong question. Ask first how many hours per week I spend studying immigration law that I don't bill for. Ask me that. Then ask what the top immigration attorneys set as their primary goal. Then ask me what my major purpose is as an immigration attorney. And then ask me what my fees are.

Most students have it backward. And they did when I was in law school too. They're conditioned to achieve instant gratification. They stand before a cold wood stove and say, "Okay stove, give me some heat, and then I'll put some wood in there." But there is no quick fix; it's not like law school exams. You can't cram to be a fine attorney, to be excellent. You have to farm it.

Here's some additional points: 1) virtually no one does this, less than one percent; and 2) if you commit yourself to excellence, eventually you'll never have to worry about money again. Certainly you'll never have any competition. Never. Other lawyers in the top 10% will even give you referrals! The farmer doesn't think about the money he'll make. He's consumed with getting the best crop he can. Then the money takes care of itself. Chase a cat and you'll never catch it; ignore it and it'll follow you everywhere. So it's really simpler today to be a successful attorney than it's ever been.

[1] American Immigration Lawyers Association, Washington, DC.

About The Author

Anthony Guidice practices Immigration Law in Rochester, New York. Reach him at] or at 585/478-0555.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.