ON SELF-TRUST AND INTUITION
As a brand-new lawyer, a young partner in my firm (a large firm in downtown Dallas) assigned me my first trial. The amount in dispute was only $5,000, so the case required the leanest possible staffing. As a 6-month attorney, that was me! I met with the partner to get the background, met with the client, and then sat down to prepare for trial. As I had been trained in law school mock trial, I made my little trial notebook, met with and prepared my witnesses (2), gathered my exhibits (3), and wrote out my opening and closing arguments, as well as every question I planned to ask the witnesses. The day before, I was ready to go— nervous, but prepared. As I sat in my office on the 34th floor, the young partner, who officed two floors above me, appeared in my doorway with a look of sheer terror on his face. Puzzled, I asked what was up. He replied, “Well, that trial—you know the $5,000 case—it’s TOMORROW.” Now I was really stumped and replied simply “I know.” The look of terror on his face melted into an expression of incomprehension. “Wasn’t there something you wanted to ASK me?” he queried. I thought for a moment, and thinking I had better come up with something said, “When I get to the courtroom and there are those two tables, which one should I sit down at?” In a small voice, he carefully replied, “sit at the one closest to the jury box.” Then he left. I can still picture him walking down the hall, shaking his head. The next day, I picked my first jury and tried my first case. I won unanimously. My client sent flowers to the office for me with a note of thanks. The young partner doubtless had a very amusing anecdote to share at the next partner meeting.
It was not until much later in my legal career that I learned that my very independent approach to my first trial was just not at all ordinary. Saddled with more than a little paranoia, most lawyers tend to collaborate ad nauseum and to think and overthink things before coming to any decision at all. Certainly preparing for a whole trial isn’t something that should be done alone—particularly a first trial. I had terrified that young partner to within an inch of his life by simply being self-reliant and trusting that I had been properly trained and had adequately prepared. I had not yet learned that such self-trust is not a valued a trait in a lawyer. I had to get that lesson over many years following. Don’t get me wrong. I still possessed that self-confidence, but I learned that I could not be trusted if I didn’t question, overthink, collaborate, and test all decisions with colleagues more experienced than I. In the words of Jimmy Buffet, the lawyer’s mantra is “It’s my job to be worried half to death.” After buying into that mantra for years, I finally wised up and decided I was probably better served by trusting my own judgment, experience, and instincts.
Launching my own practice in 2003 allowed me to embrace my earlier “got it alone” approach, and I found I was much happier. I do appreciate that “my way” does not suit everyone, and there are those who honestly enjoy the collaborative approach that I generally find tedious and unnecessarily time-consuming. And I readily acknowledge that there are situations and problems that are best tackled when smart minds collaborate to solve them and that it is very useful to consult with someone more experienced on novel or delicate matters.
But what I just can’t buy into is the concept that being “worried half to death” honestly improves anyone’s work product, regardless of their profession. Believe it or not, all of us possess instinct and intuition (yes, even lawyers) that, when deployed in conjunction with our intellects and training, unfailingly leads us to the right result. In coaching, I have found that when I stop overthinking things and allow my intuition to come to the forefront, I provide the best value for my clients. When I start questioning myself or get too much into “my head,” I deliver the least value. How I wish I had learned to lean into my intuition earlier in my legal career, and how I wish young lawyers were encouraged to embrace their instinct and intuition. Indeed, I can’t imagine a task or problem that wouldn’t benefit from the embrace of an intuitive approach. It seems unfortunate that as a society, we have been taught that intuition, if valued at all, is not a “respectable” tool for solving “real” problems. While certainly not a substitute for training, experience, and intellect, intuition is a powerful tool that can greatly enhance our problem-solving abilities. We just have to trust it. And in doing so, trust ourselves.