Inside Perspective: Outliers

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc.  He is also President Elect of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.

“Outliers: The Story of Success” is the title of one of  several best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell’s New York Times No. 1 best sellers.  It is about people who fall outside the bell curve, off the charts if you will.  I was recently prompted to read “Outliers” because Mr. Gladwell is the keynote speaker for the ACC Chicago Chapter Annual In-House Celebration Dinner to be held Sept. 23.

As the title suggests, Gladwell explains how successful people get that way.  The book is not a “How To” manual.  Rather, it looks at the various factors that make successful people like Bill Gates successful and, conversely, why otherwise hardworking intelligent people turn out to be not so successful.

According to Gladwell one of the factors contributing to success is time.  His assertion is set forth in the “10,000 Hour Rule.”  Practicing your craft for 10,000 hours will make you highly successful at it so long as you have intelligence, drive and opportunity, all of which are driven by other factors such as family, friends and culture.

How does one apply the 10,000 hour rule in the context of being a lawyer?  How do we measure 10,000 hours of quality legal “practice”?  Can it be measured by the standard 2,000 hour billable year?  I don’t think so because not every one of those 2,000 hours is spent “practicing” law in a meaningful way.     The quality of the time spent in practice varies depending on the kind of work the lawyer is doing, the task assigned to the lawyer, the complexity of the problem being solved, the quality of the mentor guiding the lawyer through the project, the independence exercised by the lawyer, the culture of the firm and so on.

I know a few lawyers who spent several years in what I would term “apprenticeship” at small law firms.  Going to school at night, they had the benefit of working in a law firm full time during the day.  They were able to experience the academic principles they learned at night in their day jobs and apply their learning to real world situations.  In those days, a “law clerk” could step up before a judge on simple matters, could attend real estate closings and in many small firms, draft pleadings and conduct research as they wrote the brief and then went with the lawyer to court when the case was argued.  Once these lawyers passed the bar, they seamlessly transitioned to full out legal practice and felt very comfortable jumping right in.

Contrast this experience with the lawyer who graduates from a top notch law school and spends her first few years working in a “white shoe” firm on deal papers huddled in a closet before ever getting to be the team lead on a deal, or works on discovery requests for two years before ever seeing the inside of a courtroom.  All else being equal, which lawyer would you hire as your new in-house associate?

As in-house counsel, we generally have the benefit of years of experience “practicing” our craft.  I am sure that most of us put in our 10,000 hours before we went in-house and were more than ready to provide a new level of guidance and counseling to our clients.  I suggest that the 10,000 hour rule be applied to all in-house lawyers and those who want to be in-house.

So, if you aspire to work in-house, put in the time on quality projects so that when the opportunity arises, you rise to the challenge and can provide that next level  of expertise required to make you a master of your craft and maybe even become an “outlier” in your own right.

If you are interested in attending the ACC Chicago Chapter Annual In-House Counsel Celebration Dinner, you can click here for information:    http://www.acc.com/chapters/chic/index.cfm?eventID=9621

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