Recently I had the pleasure of participating in a panel of judges at an IndyBar Young Lawyers Division event. The theme of the event was to share with young attorneys what makes a lawyer stand out in court and general advice for a successful career. My colleagues and I offered numerous suggestions, many of the offerings from the other judges were fresh and new. All of the suggestions were ones I wish someone had told me years ago when I started to forge my career.
Like most people, I am very reluctant to share my past experiences with failure, although we’ve all had disappointments. I hope most people have forgotten my public losses. However, at this particular gathering, I shared that I’d had a very public failure but that, in retrospect, it had turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. While I will never fully know why I have had the opportunities that I’ve had since that time, I became more well-known during that time in my career. People watched how I carried myself during a time of scrutiny and, likely more importantly, how I carried myself after suffering disappointment.
Two other judges on that panel shared similar experiences of failure which ultimately propelled them to greater opportunities. I recalled one of the judges on our panel running for judge of the Small Claims Court. She ran an excellent campaign, spoke eloquently on numerous occasions, shared the highlights of her career, rallied others to assist her in her quest, but ultimately fell short. I was one of those observers who saw her perform very ably. I came to know her reputation as a smart, skilled, hard-working trial attorney. I observed how very gracefully she carried herself after that loss and I remember thinking she had big things ahead of her. Of course she did, because instead of a part-time small claims court judge, she is now a highly respected member of the state trial bench.
Likewise, another judge on the panel had an almost identical story. She ran for public office and mounted a superb slating campaign. I had never seen so many organized supporters at a local political caucus as she had supporting her that day. The day dragged long and party faithful had to leave before the final round of voting occurred. She lost that slating convention by a mere two votes. It must have been crushing. Everyone watched to see how she would react and she was the epitome of good sportsmanship. She returned to the private practice of law, had great success as a mediator and served as an example of how to be dignified in the face of great disappointment. Today, she is also an esteemed member of our state trial bench.
My lawyer-daughter calls this “failing forward.” That’s when someone loses a sought-after opportunity, yet comes up with something even better. I’ll never know if my very public loss played any part in my ultimate appointment to my current position. I hope I carried myself in a way that others saw as graceful and dignified in the face of adversity and disappointment. I know that my current position is, without question, one of the best in the judiciary and an enormous blessing to me. Too bad I couldn’t have known it would all turn out for the very best but, of course, that would take the suspense out of life.
I hope these stories of failing forward encourage other lawyers to have the boldness to take a risk. Ambition is believing you have something more to offer and telling people it’s so. Even within a law firm, it’s smart to ask for an opportunity. Don’t sit back and hope others think of you. Although my panel’s experiences were about seeking a judgeship, the same is true for being elected to serve on the Judicial Nominating Commission, a township board or even striking out to form a new law firm. It might mean running for an officer position in a bar association or applying for a job in state government. A motivational speaker once said “it’s not how far you fall, but how high you bounce.” So, reach for that brass ring and you just might catch it.