Russeth’s Rules for Successful Legal Careers

This column isn’t about how to be a happy lawyer, which long ago became a vapid, tiresome topic. It’s about how to be successful, and expounds on an article called Six Rules for a Successful Legal Career that appeared in the Minnesota Lawyer in June 2010.

The author of that article—Richard Russeth—was satisfied to list his rules, and leave it at that. I pick up here where Russeth left off, and explain why following his six simple rules can help lawyers be successful.

Who’s Richard Russeth?

Richard Russeth is general counsel at Leprino Foods Company, a Denver-based, global food company. After graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1982, he began working at The Pillsbury Company in Minneapolis. There, Russeth worked for Edward Stringer, Ron Lund, and Mahlon Schneider, three lawyers whose mentorship profoundly affected his career.

Stringer, Lund, and Schneider ran Pillsbury’s legal department like a private law firm—even creating a “firm” letterhead with attorneys’ names. They devoted time to training and mentoring Russeth, and he learned something different from each of them. Russeth recounted that Stringer, Lund, and Schneider didn’t care whether he “was going to make them a buck; they were concerned that [he] become a good lawyer.”

Ed Stringer taught Russeth to be rigorous in his “analysis and ethical in [his] practice,” and he “did not stand for sloppy work or thinking.” Ron Lund taught him “not to be an a—hole,” and was a “gentleman in word and deed. He kept his word. Woe to you if you did not.” And Mahlon Schneider taught him to be “take pleasure in the success of others,” and was “generous with time, advice and his lake cabin.”

What’s fascinating about Russeth’s story about his work at Pillsbury—and why it’s worth revisiting and expounding on here—is that Stringer, Lund, and Schneider weren’t ordinary lawyers: After Pillsbury, Stringer became general counsel for the Department of Education under President George H.W. Bush, and later served as an associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court; Lund went on to become general counsel for Medtronic; and Schneider became general counsel for Hormel Foods.

No slouches, indeed.

Practicing Russeth’s Rules for Successful Lawyering

Russeth’s experience at Pillsbury taught him that it’s hard work to be a successful lawyer even when you follow his rules “but it’s almost impossible when you don’t.” The six rules he learned from Stringer, Lund, and Schneider were: (1) Be rigorous; (2) Be ethical; (3) Don’t be an a—hole; (4) Be generous; (5) Take pleasure in the success of others; and (6) Always hire people who are smarter than you.

Be Rigorous

Though successful lawyers might excel at one particular aspect of lawyering, being rigorous is a common defining trait. When I was a young associate, a mentor told me that the usual lawyer-marketing activities—e.g., taking prospective clients to dinner and participating in bar-association activities—would do my career little good if I couldn’t consistently produce excellent work product for sophisticated clients. He also reminded me that being rigorous can never take a vacation.

He was right. His and my clients didn’t care whether I could schmooze with them after hours; they cared whether I could write a compelling brief or argue a complex motion, and do it on a consistent basis. For them, it was really that simple.

Being rigorous also means establishing high standards for subordinates and holding them to those standards. Some firms hesitate to fire an underperforming associate, believing that the associate might someday turn it around. But that does neither the firm nor the underperforming associate any good. Indulging in a fantasy that an underperforming associate will someday improve his work product not only risks the firm’s credibility with its clients, it also strains and distracts other lawyers in the firm who are called on repeatedly to clean up the associate’s messes.

Be Ethical

Law school drills into law students the need to be ethical. But for some lawyers the rules of professional conduct start to look like guidelines the first time a client asks whether it would be easier to “lose” a discovery document than produce it. True, many lawyers get away with unethical conduct—often repeatedly.

But when a lawyer starts dabbling in unethical behavior, first their coworkers, then opposing counsel, then judges, and then the disciplinary board begin to take notice. By that time, the lawyer’s unethical behavior has defined his career and denigrated his firm’s or company’s good name. And unlike sloppy work product, it’s near impossible to rehabilitate a reputation for unethical behavior. Just ask Milberg Weiss.

Don’t be a Jerk

No one quite knows when the first lawyer started acting like a jerk to advance his career. But today these lawyers are ubiquitous. What’s puzzling about the apparent logic of these lawyers is that no business-school-management course would dare teach kicking an assistant’s cubicle or publicly humiliating an associate as an effective way to motivate them to do better work. Yet it happens every day, even at the best firms.

Despite studies that suggest that being a jerk may have short-term benefits, it isn’t an effective career strategy. A lawyer instead can motivate by cultivating the respect of her coworkers. If a coworker respects a lawyer’s rigor, and the lawyer treats the subordinate reasonably and evenhandedly, more often than not the coworker will be motivated to work hard and give the lawyer the benefit of the doubt.

Be Generous

Some lawyers can’t express gratitude for a job well done. I’ve never understood it; though I suspect it has something to do with maintaining faux law-office hierarchy. Being generous—expressing gratitude—costs a lawyer nothing, and it engenders loyalty, respect, admiration, and appreciation for the lawyer by the recipient of the lawyer’s generosity.

At Pillsbury, Mahlon Schneider expressed his generosity by allowing his coworkers to use his lake cabin. But simple acts like giving a coworker a $20 gift certificate or tickets to a ball game to thank them for a job well done goes a long way to cultivate the coworker’s loyalty.

Take Pleasure in the Success of Others

Gore Vidal wryly observed that “[i]t is not enough to succeed; others must fail.” Few lawyers take pleasure in the success of their coworkers, even though their success benefits the lawyer’s own career.

I call this phenomenon the Lawyer’s Zero-Sum Principle of Success: If a lawyer—especially a young lawyer—is succeeding, that success diminishes the success of her colleagues. Lawyers who adhere to the Lawyer’s Zero-Sum Principle of Success are insecure and have doubts about their own ability. If a lawyer is secure in himself and confident in his abilities, another lawyer’s success can never diminish those personal attributes.

Always Hire People Who Are Smarter Than You

David Ogilvy—one of the original Mad Men—once told his board of directors that “[i]f you always hire people who are smaller than you, we shall become a company of [little people]. If, on the other hand, you always hire people who are bigger than you we shall become a company of giants.”

Lawyers don’t suffer from small egos, and on a primitive level it’s difficult for some lawyers to accept that others lawyers are more talented. But lawyers who are secure and don’t doubt their own abilities know that highly talented lawyers will always end up making them look better, which in turn will make them more successful.

Ignore Russeth’s Rules at Your Peril

I’m not that naive to think that all, or most, or even some lawyers will take this column to heart. I’m also sure that even the few lawyers who do try to follow these rules often will fail to live up to them. After all, lawyers are fallible human beings, and as human beings lawyers can only strive for progress, not perfection. But I agree with Russeth: If a lawyer works hard at following these six rules, the more likely the lawyer will have a successful legal career.

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  • D. Macklin

    Very thoughtful piece. I am a 25 year veteran of a legal services practice at a non-profit. I am making the shift to private practice and working for myself and more frightening than anything, working alone. Russeth’s rules are very much in line with what I learned during my career.

  • Falusi Iretioluwa

    These rules are perfect for me as I have just began a career in law.

  • Richard Russeth

    Matthew, great article! Thanks for the repeating my mantra out there. Who knows? It might catch on.

    • http://www.linkedin.com/in/matthewsalzwedel Matthew Salzwedel

      Richard, your article was one of the best I’ve ever read on any law-related subject. And those who know me know that I rarely make these types of endorsements. Thanks again.