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True Solos Have True Grit, But Law School Rewards the Ephemeral

by Carolyn Elefant on August 21, 2009 · 0 comments

in Solo Practice Trends

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Got grit?  You do if you’re making a go of it as a solo.  As much as many of the law practice gurus tell you that earning gobs of money as a solo is easy as pie (particularly if you’re using their thousand dollar "recipes"), the truth is that success comes from doggedness, a bit of desperation and grit.  Too bad that law schools aren’t teaching or rewarding those characteristics.

This recent Boston Globe article explores the concept of grit and our evolving understanding the role that it plays in success:

It’s the single most famous story of scientific discovery: in 1666, Isaac Newton was walking in his garden outside Cambridge, England – he was avoiding the city because of the plague – when he saw an apple fall from a tree. The fruit fell straight to the earth, as if tugged by an invisible force. (Subsequent versions of the story had the apple hitting Newton on the head.) This mundane observation led Newton to devise the concept of universal gravitation, which explained everything from the falling apple to the orbit of the moon.

There is something appealing about such narratives. They reduce the scientific process to a sudden epiphany: There is no sweat or toil, just a new idea, produced by a genius. Everybody knows that things fall – it took Newton to explain why.
Unfortunately, the story of the apple is almost certainly false….The discovery of gravity, in other words, wasn’t a flash of insight – it required decades of effort, which is one of the reasons Newton didn’t publish his theory until 1687, in the “Principia.” Although biographers have long celebrated Newton’s intellect…Newton also had an astonishing ability to persist in the face of obstacles, to stick with the same stubborn mystery – why did the apple fall, but the moon remain in the sky? – until he found the answer.


In recent years, psychologists have come up with a term to describe this mental trait: grit.

The Globe points out that  the concept of grit isn’t new.  But surprisingly, until very recently, the role of grit has been underestimated and overshadowed by traits like  IQ and intelligence when making predictions about achievement.  Now, scientists studying grit hope that educators can find ways to teach the skill in school "to produce a generation of grittier children."

Though we can’t expect law schools to teach grit, at the very least, perhaps they might try to reward it.  Instead, as this post from Ms JD points out, legal employers would rather rely on first year law school grades because they "serve as a proxy" for being a quick study, able to make snap assessments of a new situation and respond.  And law schools aren’t much better; grades are usually based on a single, three hour issue-spotting exam which rewards quick thinking but not necessarily hard work.

And so, it’s no wonder that law school graduates hit with hard times are floundering: because they don’t have the grit to deal with setbacks.  The bitterness of commenters at sites like Above The Law or the writer of Big Debt, Small Law (also discussed
here) is at once frightening and  almost offensive in comparing document review jobs or the plight of unemployed lawyers to industrial workers of yore (I don’t care how bad or demeaning document review is, it’s nothing like the jobs described in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed or a real sweat shop).  Yet many of the folks complaining are smart and highly credentialed, like the author of Big Debt, Small Law.  He writes:

I’m not just a click monkey or self-entitled malcontent. No, I haven’t spent my entire legal career, as it were, in the sub-basements of Biglaw. In fact, I worked sixty-hour weeks for two years as an associate at one of the most infamous personal-injury boiler rooms on the island of Manhattan, out there daily in the trenches of “practice.” My starting salary from a solid 2nd tier school, top 1/3 of the class (and top 15% after first year) was a whopping 45 K, with a Third World health plan to which I contributed $200 a month. I have taken and defended over 200 depositions, picked 14 juries first-chair (and taken two of these turds thru to verdict by myself with one 21 K win), and  appeared in NYC Supreme and Civil Courts to argue countless motions and other papers more times than I can count. One would think that this “experience” would have some serious value, right?

Wrong.  I don’t think experience or grades alone "have serious value", just like an apple hitting Newton on the head didn’t have any value or meaning until Newton spent years figuring out what that meaning was.  Ultimately, the question of whether you can take your talent and experience and brainpower and build a life for yourself in the law or take a litany of cleverly written and scathing attacks on the legal industry and effect real change depends upon grit and doggedness.  Law schools don’t teach those traits or ascribe any importance to them, but I still believe that we can learn them for ourselves.

Related reading:  New York Personal Injury Lawyer Eric Turkewitz’s advice for getting out of the document review basement.

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