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Lessons From a Lawyer Who Was Never, Ever Wrong

by Jay Reeves |

It is always surprising to me – and more than a bit chastening – to realize how often I’d rather be right than happy.

I like to think I’ve made progress on this front. Though my colleagues, loved ones and faithful dog Annie might say otherwise.

Even so, I’ve discovered a little trick that helps. Whenever I feel an overwhelming urge to be right, all I have to do is recall my law school buddy Paul, and my better angels appear.

These days the University of South Carolina School of Law occupies a columned palace in the heart of Columbia. But back in the Middle Ages when I attended, it adjoined an underground tunnel and a vast, sweltering parking lot.

I met Paul during my first clueless hours as a 1L. We were both trying to get our student IDs. The orientation packet said to pick them up at the Russell House.

“That’s wrong,” he said, with an impressive confidence that promised a bright career in litigation. “Follow me.”

So I did, to the Carolina Coliseum, where we spent hours wandering the catacombs beneath the Frank McGuire arena until a kindly custodian told us we needed to go to the Russell House. Just like the directions said.

I’m Right, You’re Wrong

This episode revealed my friend’s Achilles heel: an unshakable belief in his own correctness, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary.

I suppose coming from a long line of lawyers – and having earned a varsity letter in water polo from U Conn – some of this was inevitable. But what made Paul unique was his insistence on being right even as to trivial matters of opinion.

“Thurman Munson is the best catcher in baseball,” he’d pronounce, apropos of nothing.

“I think Carlton Fisk is better,” an unwitting undergraduate would counter.

“No way,” said Paul, his voice growing louder, thus launching another pointless dorm-room debate that would rage all night.

Of course – Bill James notwithstanding – there was no objective conclusion to such an argument. But Paul would keep pounding away until his opponent abandoned the field in exhaustion.

“Whatever,” Paul’s foe would say as the sun peeked over the horizon. “I’m going to bed.”

“Ha! I won.”

EQ Is Sweeter Than IQ

Early on, a part of me wanted to be more like Paul. Sure, he was argumentative. But he was also a runner (like me but faster) and had a car (like mine but faster). And he did know a lot of stuff, which he’d eagerly share whether you wanted him to or not.

But I quickly came to see that Paul was his own worst enemy. He grated on some people. And by some people I mean everybody.

To be clear, I think being right is a fine thing. It’s especially helpful when arguing a case, advising a client or appearing on Jeopardy.

But sometimes it’s more important to keep quiet. To listen and learn from others. To make peace, not points.

Which leads to our Mock Trial experience.

Paul and I were teammates, and we cruised through the first two rounds. But in round three the wheels came off. Paul was penalized for bickering with the judge and standing so close to the jury box during his closing argument – did I mention he was a big, tall college athlete? – that the jurors felt intimidated.

“No way,” Paul corrected the judge and jurors. “I was right where I should have been.”

Being Imperfect Is Being Human

Perfectionism is a plague that bedevils many of us lawyers. We fear being seen as less-than. We are scared of making a mistake, of being criticized or – heaven forbid – laughed at. And so we remain stuck in neutral, or else we shield ourselves behind a wall of know-it-all intelligence.

I caught up with Paul some years ago. He was working at a small firm in Texas and loving it. He was married with three children, one of whom joined us on our lunch date.

“Sorry we’re late,” he said, as we met at the restaurant.

“It’s dad’s fault,” said his daughter. “He’s terrible with directions.”

“Yeah,” he said, and grinned sheepishly. “I’m such a dummy.”

My jaw dropped. This was not the Paul I knew in law school. This was a new, improved version. A version that chose happiness over being right.

So we sat down to break bread together, two old friends and a young person to keep us honest, and everything was all right.

Jay Reeves has practiced law and done some other things over the years. He still has his law school ID. Paul’s daughter is named Paulina, and they are both wonderful human beings. Want to jump-start your law marketing or improve your law life? Contact jay@yourlawlife.com or 919-619-2441.

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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