Inside Perspective: Don’t take advice from a serpent

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co.  He is also president 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.

“Now the serpent was the most cunning of all the animals that the LORD God had made. The serpent asked the woman, ‘Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?’ The woman answered the serpent: ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die. But the serpent said to the woman: ‘You certainly will not die!’”

Genesis 3: 1-4

 As we all know from this story in Genesis, a decision was made on the basis of the representation made by the serpent and as a result thereof, humankind now knows the taste of death.  In the case of Adam and Eve, the serpent meant to deceive humankind.  I do not mean to diminish in any way mankind’s fall from God’s grace nor do I mean to exaggerate the effects of taking bad advice.  However, dire consequences may befall any one of us on a much lesser scale if we take otherwise well meaning advice from someone who is not well qualified to give it.

For example, a wise person would never take career advice on how to become an in-house lawyer from an airline pilot.  No matter how well meaning that pilot is, she is just not competent to advise a student or new lawyer on how to develop a career path leading to the general counsel’s office.  A good, honest and ethical airline pilot would not even attempt such folly.  Likewise, a thoughtful person would likely not rely upon an in-house counsel to advise them on how to become a federal judge.  The wise in-house counsel, when asked such advice from a student, would put that person in touch with a friend or colleague who is a judge, or help that person in some other way to connect with a federal judge willing to give such advice.

For aspiring law students and new lawyers, seeking career advice can be scary because they have no benchmark against which to judge the advice they are given and whether it is sound advice or not.  Just because the advice comes from a prominent litigator in the student’s community does not mean that it is good advice.  So what does one do?

Seek advice from trusted, experienced people in your community.  Ask them for the names of people they know and trust and then for an introduction.  Most people are willing to help those asking for assistance – if they aren’t then you don’t want their advice anyway.  Then listen thoughtfully.  Ask appropriate questions at the appropriate times to test the advice.  Start building your benchmarks.  Then repeat the process, many times and with many different people, but always with trusted people who have been referred by other people close to you.  Your benchmarks will evolve as you feed off the wisdom and experience of those who are advising you.  Good people will refer you to other good people.

Expand your circle of trusted advisors, always having at least one and no more than three, who you can share everything with and from whom you expect nothing less than having your best interests in the forefront of their minds when giving you advice.

The lack of judgment exercised by Adam and Eve in choosing to disobey God’s command was inevitable.  However, students of the law are presumed to have at least a minimum level of competence.  Exercise discernment in everything you do as a lawyer, including picking your mentors.  None of them can possibly have the wisdom of Solomon, but as long as they are genuinely interested in your personal development and have a few years of solid experience behind them, you should be OK.


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