My first legal job was serving as a clerk for the Hon. J. Owen Forrester of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. I knew I wanted to be a litigator, and so working for a trial judge was my idea of the perfect job. Sure enough, I learned lessons that have lasted the test of time.
Judge Forrester died on July 1, and while attending his funeral, I asked a number of his other clerks the most important lesson he taught them. Interestingly, every person alluded to exactly the same lesson:
To be effective, solve the root problem rather
than spending time on peripheral, non-dispositive issues.
The application is clear in litigation: if you can dispose of (or win) a case based on jurisdiction or standing, very often you won’t have to address more contentious matters. You’ve heard the saying bad facts make bad law, and applying this lesson offers a way around that problem.
Today, I apply this lesson in consulting with clients about business development through planning and strategy. Without a cohesive, strategic plan, no tactics can be ultimately successful. When I begin consulting with a client, I always start with the plan, and sometimes that even leads to a deeper root issue (like what kind of practice you want to build) that must be resolved before we can create a viable strategy.
Judge Forrester taught me many other lessons critical for business and business development, including the importance of integrity and compassion; the necessity to offer more than reason alone when crafting an argument; and how to research a controlling decision back to its wellspring to understand it. Most importantly, the Judge demonstrated his respect for every person who entered his courtroom—and the willingness to withdraw that respect if it was abused. I draw on these lessons in my professional and personal life, and they serve as the support for all of the work I do with clients.
A mentor is irreplaceable, and I (and many others) will miss the Judge terribly. But I know that he would be gratified to know that his lessons will live on and will be handed down.
What lessons have you learned from your mentors? And what lessons are you teaching those who look to you?