Sunday, September 18, 2016

Insight of the Week: Is it Worth the Price of Achieving Excellence?

Listening to Video Game Music
After filing two briefs in the Court of Appeals, it made me wonder if paying the price to achieve excellence was worth it. Writing an appellate brief is not just like writing a college essay.

It's work, and it's generally grueling work. It's also probably a level of difficulty above writing a brief at the trial court, as the appellant (the person filing the brief) is trying to "appeal" to the higher court to reverse the lower court. The higher court doesn't do it often; so you're persuasive writing and argument better be top notch. Essentially, you're asking the higher court to trust you over the ruling that the lower court made, and a shoddy work product doesn't generally cut it.

This week, I met with my mentor and showed him my brief. For the first time, he said, "This is a fine piece of work, Paul. Really, professional." That made me feel happy, as he usually has scathing but correct criticism on the areas I need to improve on. (We have a little mantra on these lessons: Practice makes better (as opposed to perfect)).

Inside, I could feel that I've reached a new level of professionalism as well. I guess you know that, when you stop writing mechanically or with a formula or with a template, and instead you look at the blank page or blank screen and treat it like a blank canvas. The words become your brush strokes, and you think about painting a picture with your words, which creates a piece of art, which has layers of meaning, stacked upon layer of other meaning. And the great challenge, perhaps the greatest one, is to take all the complexity of what you know and want to say and to reduce it to be simple, not simplistic. In the end, the work begins to say more about the author, than the facts of the case itself. 

And why am I telling you all this? Putting in so much time and energy and thought has really made me question is it worth it? 

Of course, the simplistic answer is, Yes. I look back on what I had to pay to learn all the professional lessons up to this point, and it's been a heavy cost, mainly in the form of not working at a big law firm and earning a large salary. Had I worked at a big law firm though, I know that I wouldn't have been able to learn all the skills I gained.

So, to put it to you simply, if you were me, would you make $160,000 a year (that's close to $4,307 every two weeks after taxes) or would you like to have lived like me, which included being in poverty, not knowing when my next check would come, or being branded with the stigma of not having prestige and power backing me? The upside, however, is all the experience gained. I don't have a solid answer to the question; it's just a conflict that I'm weighing in my head.

And on top of all that, it often seems like a top quality work product doesn't guarantee success in litigation. The longer I litigate, the more I see such shoddy work product being produced, perhaps, precisely because attorneys know that the payout doesn't justify the extra work needed to really deliver a polished piece.

I can only say that I've been inspired to continue the quest by reading Magnus Nillson's Cookbook, Fäviken. Nillson is the top chef of Sweden; his restaurant ranks number 25 globally. I was impressed with Nillson and his quest for excellence.

One thing he said he did was that he saved up all his money as a sous chef, and spent every cent on eating at fine restaurants around the world to learn. That's real dedication to improving your skills. Imagine if you spent your life savings all on educating yourself on professionalism and nothing else.

Other things he does, that separates him, is that he has his own slaughterhouse for the restaurant. He cooks with wild forest weeds and hunts regularly for game. This is besides the fact that he has his own vegetable garden, which appears to be the minimum now to run a top restaurant.

I thought about everything he does, and realized, he's probably not making that much - when you think about how much time and effort he's spending on managing his establishment and designing new cuisines. The only conclusion that I can come up with why he does everything he does, is for one reason only: He loves it.

So I wanted to share that this chef's quest for excellence, I can say, it inspired and inspires me. I can't say I've come to the conclusion that pushing one's self to get there is worth it yet. I don't think, as a litigator, I can say I loved the journey I've been on. I do think I can say, I do it all, because I can't see it any other way. It's who I am. 

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