Jim’s Rules For A Good Life

employee looking out the window of his office

By: Attorney Ken Harrell

My father-in-law Jim (that’s Dr. James Morrell to most of you) was a prince of a man.  After getting over his initial shock when his Garden City, New York-raised daughter brought home this southern country bumpkin for my first visit to New York, he was unfailingly kind, warm and generous to me until he died a couple of years ago.  Once Jim learned I was a Civil War and U.S. politics history buff, he proceeded to give me multiple historic autographed letters and photographs over the years, many of which decorate my work and home offices now.  After his funeral, one of his daughters shared “Jim’s rules” for a happy life.  I ended up jotting them down because they made an impression on me, and they seemed so consistent with how he lived his life.  I hope I accurately recorded them and I’d like to share them, with a special focus on how important they are for lawyers to keep in mind.

  1. Be kind. Sometimes the simplest rules are the best rules.  Many people mistakenly think of kindness as being the same as weakness.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In 30-plus years of practicing law, I’ve consistently found that the best lawyers are usually the kindest lawyers as well.  I can still remember the established Charleston lawyers who reached out to welcome me when I first moved to town as a young associate with Nelson, Mullins.  Whenever I encounter a lawyer who is rude and boorish, it’s pretty apparent that I’m dealing with an insecure lawyer (most likely related to a feeling that their legal abilities aren’t quite up to snuff).  Being kind does not mean that you can’t be demanding.  I expect a high level of performance from each of my firm’s lawyers and employees.  I also don’t spend time worrying about whether all of them are happy with me, or if they “like” me.  (Steve Jobs had a great quote on this – “If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader – sell ice cream.”)  However, that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be consistently kind to the people I work with, to clients, to opposing counsel and parties, to vendors – to everyone.  Greeting everyone you meet (and hopefully with a smile), letting people know when they’ve done a good job and you appreciate them, looking for little ways to brighten someone’s day – these things don’t cost money but they can change the tenor of someone’s day.  When we pray, we can pray to be blessed, or pray to be a blessing.  Being blessed is usually based on what someone else does for or to you.  Being a blessing is within our control – be a blessing.
  2. Envy no one anything. This is crucial advice for everyone, but it’s especially important for trial lawyers.  No matter how successful you are, you can count on someone in our profession being a rung or two higher up the ladder.  I just returned from a National Trial Lawyers Summit in Miami.  I’ve been very fortunate to do well in a job that I love but when you hear about the accomplishments of the likes of a Mark Lanier, a Mike Papantonio, or (for some South Carolina flavor) a Joe Rice, it can leave you energized to carry on the fight for our clients, or a bit demoralized that you don’t quite measure up.  This lesson has also been apparent based on our law firm’s membership in a financial comparison group with ten similarly-sized law firms from around the country.  For over a decade, I’ve met with the managing partners of these firms twice a year as we’ve opened up our books and worked collaboratively to build better law firms.  Running a plaintiffs’ law firm can be akin to riding a roller coaster.  Some years, we’re near the top in our financial comparison group and some years, we’re closer to the bottom.  Learning how to be truly happy when others accomplish great things is a key to a happy life.  Whenever a lawyer I know obtains an impressive verdict or settlement, I try to send them a hand-written note of congratulations.  I do this because I genuinely believe that another lawyer’s success makes it easier for all of us to accomplish better results for our clients.  It’s also just good karma.
  3. Happiness is your responsibility. I love Abraham Lincoln’s quote on happiness – “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”  We all know people who operate under the mistaken assumption that the world (and all of the rest of us in it) has an obligation to make them happy.  Those are people who are destined to live lives of frustration.  Keeping this rule in mind is also helpful to those of us who have employees.  I have found that with a set of basic skills, most people can be taught to do the work that’s necessary for a law firm to be successful.  One thing that cannot be trained is “how to be happy” (see Lincoln’s quote).  When I think of the top employees at my law firm that I would love to clone, they are all generally happy people.  On most days, their presence improves the mood of everyone around them.  Even when they have a bad day, they have the ability to rise above it and not let it affect the work they do for our clients.  If you’re hiring, hire “happy”.
  4. If you are invited, say yes. This is one I have had to work on.  I am a pretty social person and I enjoy mingling with and meeting new people.  However, at the end of some days, the last thing you often want to do is to head to some reception or community event.  Seeing as how our time is our most precious commodity, none of us can say “yes” all of the time.  But do try to say “yes” when you have an opportunity to attend an event for a group that’s doing good work.  And always try to say “yes” if the event involves your family or your close friends, the two most important groups of people in our lives.
  5. Do work that allows you to help others. My father-in-law was a dermatologist with a well-respected practice on Long Island, New York.  I took a different path as a trial lawyer.  I spent the first five years of my legal career doing corporate and insurance defense work at Nelson, Mullins.  It was a great experience (in part because I had the best mentor a young lawyer could ever have in my dearly departed friend Richard Farrier).  However, I never experienced what yoga teachers refer to as a sense of “flow” while doing corporate defense work.  That all changed when my good friend Mark and I reached a deal to buy his father’s plaintiffs’ practice 25 years ago.  The practice of law has been very good to me but that goes far beyond financial success.  It is hard for me to think of another line of work where you can build such long-lasting relationships and vastly improve the lives of people who are going through their darkest moments than being a trial lawyer.  I have cried with parents who have lost a young child due to an accident.  I have been hugged and kissed after trials and hearings.  The ability to help others day-in and day-out makes this job better than anything else I can think of.  (Perhaps being the first baseman for the Boston Red Sox would have been better but I could never hit a curve ball past the high school level!)
  6. Stay curious and open-minded. I’m writing this while the government shut-down stretches on to its 35th  Clearly, open-mindedness has become a rare trait, especially at the highest levels of our government.  One of my favorite mantras is “if you’re not growing, you’re dying.”  People who lack intellectual curiosity and who are convinced that they have all of the answers are unlikely to succeed at a high level.  This is especially true for trial lawyers.  No matter how many cases you’ve tried or depositions you’ve taken, you can still get better.  Last fall, three other local law firms and our firm brought Roger Dodd to Charleston to do a day-long seminar on cross-examination skills.  Every lawyer who walked out of that seminar felt a little humbled by what we had learned about how we could improve our cross-examinations.  It’s also important for trial lawyers to keep this rule in mind when dealing with our clients.  People who have been hurt need to feel heard by their lawyers.  At 55 years of age, I’m starting to realize that I’m fast approaching “senior lawyer” status.  I do feel that many younger lawyers have a hard time communicating well with our clients.  Unless you look someone in the eye and give them enough space and comfort to really tell you their story, it’s hard for you to represent them well.
  7. Count your blessings. It’s become a cliché but a sense of gratitude is another crucial component to living a good life.  I recommend that everyone, but especially every lawyer, read John Kralik’s “365 Thank Yous.”  Kralik was a California lawyer going through a divorce when the recession hit a decade ago, pushing his real estate law practice perilously close to bankruptcy.  Kralik set a goal of sending out a daily thank you note for a year.  This perpetual reminder of being grateful didn’t solve all of Kralik’s problems but it did have a lasting impact on his mindset, which he credits to his being able to turn around his law firm’s trajectory and his moving on from the bitterness of his divorce.  Since reading the book three years ago, I’ve also had the goal of sending a thank you or a congratulatory note every day, and I track them in a journal.  I graduated from law school in 1988 with $9 to my name (I still have the checkbook ledger).  I got married a week later (and I’m still happily married to my sweet wife).  When I think of all the people who helped me along the way to live the good life, I can’t help but be grateful.
  8. Life is too short for bad books, bad wine and bad food.  OK, Jim was more of a wine connoisseur than I will ever be (I still buy the $20 bottle if I get sent to the store to buy a bottle for dinner) but I’m with him when it comes to good books and good food.  One of the biggest blessings (see #7) in my life was having a grandmother who loved reading more than she loved breathing.  Hers was a simple, blue-collar household but there were books everywhere.  When I was a kid, I can remember sitting on a deer stand waiting for the dogs to run and everyone in the hunt club thought I was the “weird kid” because I always had a book with me.  Even today, any day that doesn’t involve at least an hour of escaping into a good book seems like a day wasted.  And as for good food – don’t get me started, other than to say that it doesn’t mean that you have to be at a pricey restaurant.  Let’s just say it’s a good thing that I do enjoy exercising!

I’m sure each of you has your own north star principles that help you lead your best life but Jim’s rules are a great set of reminders for everyone.