Becoming “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”: Inspiration From a Collection of Self-Help Books for the Young Lawyer in a Difficult Market

I’m not sure I’m old enough to give advice to young(er) lawyers or credible enough to give career advice in general. I’m also not sure that this post won’t be greeted with snark about the fact that I was lucky enough to be in law school at a very different time, economically at least, than what the current students and young lawyers experience. That caveat and acknowledgment that I almost “had it easy” being done, let’s dive in.

Slaw readers don’t need me to explain anything about the current state of the legal market. In Quebec, the Young Bar of Montreal is addressing the issue of unemployment among young lawyers head first, as has been mentioned several times here already. Likewise, the CBA has its excellent “Do law differently” initiative. Times, as we are hearing everywhere, are tough.

In its very good report on the matter (subject to the fact that I think I disagree with quotas), the Young Bar of Montreal pleads for training and innovation. From my understanding of the report, what they mean by that is training in law practice management on one side and business model innovation on the other, but not really “training in innovation” nor “technological innovation”. Why not? You can learn to be a better manager, but if there is less business, some people will end up having nothing to manage.

Last March, at the Legal IT conference I pleaded that lawyers should also be trained (or train themselves) “in innovation [by which I mean technological innovation]” and that, as a profession, we should therefore train ourselves to code and, more generally, to think about legal problems systemically and algorithmically. Since this presentation was not even two months ago, I obviously still believe that, but over and above this I think there are even less complicated or technological means for young lawyers to improve their situation. I also believe there are still opportunities that, for now at least, don’t even require that young lawyers “do law differently”.

None of this is new, but one important problem facing recent law graduates is that in a crowded market, the standard legal training may now be too generic (even more so in Québec where you can, as I did, go to law school without an undergrad). What young lawyers need is to become “so good they can’t be ignored” by developing a speciality.

“So Good They Can’t Ignore You” is in fact the cheesy title of a masterpiece of self-help book by Cal Newport. He basically explains that Steve Jobs was wrong when he gave that oft-tweeted commencement speech and that happiness at work comes not from choosing a career you love, but from control. Control, according to Newport, is acquired by becoming very good at something. So Good They Can’t Ignore You is a 2012 book, so I didn’t have the chance to read it when I became a lawyer in 2007. I, however, had the benefit of reading (and rereading about 100 times) a 2008 post by Jordan Furlong entitled “We are all solos”. “We are all solos” is basically So Good They Can’t Ignore You for the young lawyer.

The good thing in law (like almost anything today) is that you can become very knowledgeable about a given topic while reading free stuff (on CanLII of course!). We live in a time where it’s easier than ever to become “too good to be ignored”.

How many young lawyers do you know who have a dream to practice in a given field and who, for example:

  • Create CanLII alerts for relevant keywords in the area that they are dreaming of practicing in (you can use Lexbox for this);
  • Start a blog or started to systematically comment or summarize the relevant caselaw in this area on CanLII Connects; and
  • Attend all events in their area in that field.

Maybe I don’t go out enough, but I’m not sure I know more than a couple. Yet, there are seemingly thousands of unemployed young lawyers, or young students and lawyers that are unhappy with their current career prospects. I may of course be wrong, but there just doesn’t seem to be that many people (in proportion to the number of unemployed or unhappy people) that are trying to be “too good to be ignored” after all.

Some will say “I don’t have the credibility to publicly comment about this topic in this field I have yet to gain practical experience in”. I certainly understand that, heck, I started this post by denying that I have the required credibility to write it. But:

First, you don’t need to have tons of experience to draft a good case summary. In any event, by doing this very thing a couple of times for cases in a specific subject matter, you will soon become sufficiently knowledgeable in that field. See this old post for example if you need inspiration (Karim has since launched his own firm by the way).

Second, as the author of The Magic of Thinking Big (yes, I’m a living encyclopedia of self-help literature) would say, this is an example of excusitis. Things will never be perfect. You will probably never feel sufficiently expert in any field. For example, it’s a staple of unremarkable “lawyer profiles” in your average law industry magazine to read something along the lines of “what I love about my job is that I’ve been doing this for 20+ years and still learn something new every day”. If you’re waiting to be an expert in a given field before writing anything, you will never write about it. Computer programmers call that an infinite loop (“while not expert, don’t become expert”). Yet, I don’t blame you, I don’t write nearly as much as I would like to for this very reason.

Still, I’ll try to give you courage, first with my own (humble) example. I practiced in a relatively specific field. I wrote and published stuff that wasn’t always very good (maybe that’s what I’m doing right now!). But I think that the more I did it the better I got at writing about the law. Some days I thought I would be unmasked and somebody would point out my worse stuff and humiliate me. That never happened. At worse the not-so-good stuff was ignored (that was, and still is, a frequent occurrence) and at best the good stuff got cited on the other side of the ocean or got me a good word from a colleague who found it useful… and a lot of “Xavier, didn’t you write something about this, why don’t you answer that question from the client?”.

Further courage, I find, can be found in this 2014 interview of Daniel Radcliffe who said:

“It’s hard to watch a film like Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince because I’m just not very good in it. I hate it. My acting is very one-note, and I can see I got complacent, and what I was trying to do just didn’t come across. [My best Potter performance came in the fifth installment, 2007’s Order of the Phoenix, because I] can see a progression. […] But then the moments I’m not as proud of, mistakes other actors get to make in rehearsal rooms or at drama school, are all on film for everyone to see.”

So this guy considered that he did poor art in front of several millions of people, and he’s still at it saying that the important thing about his earlier performances is that “he saw a progression”. So chances are some of your posts, papers, articles will be “poor art” and kind of the equivalent of Radcliffe doing its mistakes on film instead of doing them in a rehearsal room, but the fact is that it doesn’t matter so much in the long run. Also, when it comes to building a reputation as a knowledgeable person in a given field as a lawyer, making your mistakes in the rehearsal room pretty much means having a “legal diary” that you keep for yourself only. Diaries, unless you’re Marcus Aurelius (probably the [accidental] author of the best self-help book in history), rarely help in building credibility. In fact, that’s a bad example considering that as the reigning Roman Emperor, Aurelius didn’t need the (posthumus) credibility that his Meditations brought him, so if you (1) are not a Roman Emperor and (2) are to write something, might as well write to be read.

Another tip comes from Derek Sivers (but I can’t find the actual post or podcast where I read or heard him say that) who suggests that you only publish something once you started working on something else. As such, when you publish your (recent) past work, you can make yourself believe that if somebody criticizes it (which, as I said, is unlikely to happen anyways), this person in fact not criticizing you but an earlier version of you that has now already gotten better.

Lastly, all of this probably means that if you want to become an expert on a given field (and therefore a more sought-after, less generic, lawyer or law student) you need to declare yourself an expert in that field, a little bit like when Steven Pressfield writes about “turning pro” (that’s the last self-help book reference I promise). Pressfield (the author, among others, of The Legend of Bagger Vance which was made into a movie) describes that he didn’t turn pro when he wrote his first successful book: he turned pro when he decided that he would leave his job as a trucker and to become a full-time committed writer. So nothing prevents you from declaring yourself a pro (to yourself I mean, not on your LinkedIn profile, at least not out of the gates) in the field that you want to work in and act as such. Caution: You may indeed become one. For an example of a lawyer that “turned pro” in a field, labour law, before practicing in this same field, see our profile on CanLII Connects user Sean Bawden.

I talked about starting a blog, or writing on CanLII Connects, but you could also take that old paper you wrote for your environmental law class, put it into shape and publish it (anywhere really). You own more “content” than you think. Sorry if this last bit seems to be a bit self-serving for CanLII, but we’re also currently thinking on how best to take in this kind of longer form commentary that doesn’t necessarily fit in the CanLII Connects format. All that to say that we may have a medium for this sooner than later, at which time if you have something to publish, by all means contact us. Now that I think about it, contact us even if you have something to publish right now and we’ll see if we can make something happen!

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