Follow these words of wisdom
by Judge Christine Arguello
This essay is a shortened version of a speech by Judge Christine Arguello (pictured below) presented at the DBA Young Lawyers 2010 Law Day Luncheon at The Oxford Hotel on May 6.
I’ll be honest. Being asked to give the keynote speech at the Young Lawyer’s lunch was somewhat of a bittersweet honor. Why? Well, it just does not seem possible that I am no longer a young lawyer myself. I remember attending similar YLD Law Day lunches as a member of the group and the keynote speakers always seemed so old to me. Then, I was asked to be one of those speakers.
The theme of this year’s Law Week was "Law in the 21st Century: Enduring Traditions, Emerging Challenges." All of us know that the American legal system, and our legal profession, are undergoing unprecedented change.
I have seen many changes, as I am sure you are beginning to see. But frankly, I will admit I found studies and reports on these changes to be somewhat dry and boring. I don’t have any deep, profound thoughts and ideas about how we can deal with the challenges of this technological revolution and globalization of the world, so I decided to go down a different path.
I want to address some of the more down-to-earth personal challenges I believe you will face over the course of your life. I will do what "old" people do and reminisce about my experiences as a lawyer.
By sharing with you some anecdotes that were pivotal incidents in my life, it is my hope that I can provide you with some "consejos" (Spanish for "advice" or "counsel").
The first consejo I will give you is to take charge of your own life. I did not return home to Colorado immediately after law school because I wanted to be a trial lawyer. At that time, I got the distinct impression from my interviews with the firms in Colorado that went to Harvard to recruit, that I did not fit their stereotype of a successful trial lawyer. I told my husband that, if I went to work for them, they were going to stick me in a back room and have me write briefs or make me do wills and estates work. So, I took my destiny into my own hands and decided that I would search out a firm that was willing to hire me as a litigator. We ended up in Miami because the firm hired me specifically to join its litigation section.
My second consejo is to search your heart and soul to decide what it really is that you want out of life. What will make you excited to wake up every morning and jump out of bed, knowing that you will be spending your day doing what you love? Once you decide what this is, then give it your all.
Now, when I was young, I intended on becoming a Reginald Heber Smith Fellow — working on behalf of the poor and downtrodden in our society. However, I had to rethink my plans because I did not receive a fellowship. Also, I was swept off my feet at the courtship of the big law firms — the money, the receptions, the beautiful offices.
I decided to join a firm and go into private practice. I didn’t know whether I would love it. Once I made the decision, I gave it my all. Like most other associates in a law firm, my goal was to make partner. I put my nose to the grindstone and worked 14-hour days, sometimes seven days a week. As I studied the office and the internal politics, I came to realize that hard work was important, but that alone was not going to be enough.
That’s when I discovered the third consejo. No matter what job or position you have, finding an influential mentor is critical. So, I looked around the firm for a partner with whom I had somewhat of a natural rapport, but who also was a respected and influential partner. He didn’t realize that I had selected him to be my mentor, but I sought out projects from him and soon I was handling the work for the bulk of his clients. I took exceptional care of his clients and I made sure he always looked good; in return, he served as counselor and advisor to me.
He helped me to navigate the office politics, he spoke on my behalf in partner meetings (either singing my praises or deflecting unwarranted criticism), and when I came up for partner, I knew he would fight hard on my behalf. He liked and respected me, but more important, if I didn’t make partner, who was going to take care of his clients?
My fourth consejo is that when you achieve whatever "success" you have targeted, don’t be one of those people who never looks back to hold out a hand and help another.
I believe that we all have an obligation to reach back and do what we can to help others climb that mountain by mentoring, opening doors, and helping to train and network.
My fifth consejo is not to be afraid of change. I made partner with Holland & Hart. I was respected in my firm and in my community. I was making more money than I ever dreamed was possible, but for reasons I did not understand, I became restless and I stopped rolling out of bed in the morning so excited to get in to work. I have come to realize that I am a goal-oriented person who constantly needs to be challenged. Once I accomplish my goal, I feel unchallenged. So, once I made partner, it was time to scale a new mountain. I chose academia because I love to teach and mentor. Ultimately, my goal was to gain tenure and be promoted to full professor. Yes, you guessed it, once I achieved tenure and promotion to full professor, I got restless again and it was time to move on to another position.
I have never been afraid of change — I thrive on it and it energizes me. Don’t be afraid to dive off a cliff, at least once in your life.
My sixth consejo is no matter what job you undertake always give it 100 percent effort. I am able to give this effort because believe it or not, even at my age, I still roll out of bed every morning excited about my work day. Whenever I get to the point that I am no longer excited and challenged, then I know it is time to move on. It is impossible to work at your full potential if you are just going through the motions because you need a paycheck. Life is too short to spend it working a job you are not excited about.
My seventh consejo is never allow the "golden-handcuffs" to restrain you. This one has not been too difficult because, for me, becoming a lawyer was never been about the money. For example, when I decided to become a law professor, I received eight job offers and Kansas was actually the lowest monetary offer I received. I chose Kansas because the faculty really wanted me and they rolled out the red carpet.
In 1999, then newly elected Attorney General Ken Salazar called me and offered me the job of Deputy for State Services in the AG’s office. I asked him what the pay was and he said $75,000. By this time, I had been practicing successfully for almost 19 years and now I was going to be making less than a first-year associate in a big law firm. But this was an opportunity to practice government law — something I had not yet experienced and to give back to my home state, so I accepted the offer.
My eighth and last consejo relates to the most valuable asset you possess. I know you all paid beaucoup bucks for your law degree, but the most valuable asset you have is not that framed law degree hanging on your office wall; rather, it is your reputation, particularly as an attorney.
Always remember that you only have one chance to make a good first impression. Judges, lawyers and clients remember the way you present the facts and the law.
Be Competent. Work hard to learn your subject matter and the law. No client or amount of money is worth sacrificing your reputation for veracity and truthfulness.
Be Respectful. Your law degree and law license establish that you have the right to practice law, but they do not establish that you are better than anyone else or that you are due any more respect than others. Always remember that your attitude and the way you treat others can have a great impact on your career. People who work in your law office, in the clerk of court’s office, and throughout the community deserve your utmost respect and courtesy. The people who work for and with you can "make you or break you."
Be Civil. You can be a zealous advocate, seek justice and still be respectful to the opposing party. The next time you are faced with incivility, I challenge you to "take the high road" and maintain the most professional manner you can.
Gaining a positive reputation boils down to following the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
Success will have different meanings for each of you at different stages in your lives. I remember when I thought success was winning a case at trial or making partner in my law firm. And those are not bad things to strive for, but as I’ve gotten older and gained wisdom, the meaning of success has changed.
I will end with this poem:
To laugh often and much;