Know Your Limitations

Self-help gurus will tell you that humans have limitless potential. Are they right? Are there really no boundaries to what we are capable of doing? The answer is yes . . . and no. The key, I think, is the word “potential.” So, while it may be true that you potentially can do anything, in reality, we all know that we cannot do anything. Or, perhaps, more precisely, we all know that we do not do anything. Sometimes that is due to physical limitations (as a guy who’s under 5’6”, I’m never going to dunk a basketball without first climbing a ladder or jumping onto a trampoline). Sometimes the limitations are external forces (if you are in prison, you do not have the freedom to go on vacation in Florida for Spring Break), and sometimes those limitations come from within. Those are the limitations I’m focused on. Those are the ones you need to be aware of. Those are the ones you can do something about.

Indeed, having been fired or laid off from several different law firms, I’ve realized the importance of knowing your own limitations. In my case, that meant realizing that I really didn’t seem to have the psychological makeup or the passion to be a great lawyer. If only I had acted on this realization years earlier, I could have saved myself years of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

Now, let me be clear, it’s not that I don’t have intellectual capacity to be a top-flight lawyer. I believe that I do, and results on various standardized tests and in other contexts seem to back me up on this. But law is a funny thing. It requires not only painstaking attention to detail and a plodding, endless well of patience, but it also–at least in litigation—requires a real zest for confrontation. You have to love the chess match.

I’m pretty good on the detail part, but I don’t do too well in the patience department, and the desire for confrontation—forget it. It’s not for nothing that one of my favorite hobbies is long distance running.

Unfortunately, I think I knew this right from the beginning. Now, in and of itself, this wasn’t the end of the world. But it was frustrating. There I was, slaving away, working endless hours, and feeling like a minor league baseball player who was never going to have a batting average much higher than his weight. But, like so many lawyers who are unhappy or whose careers are not progressing the way they had hoped, I lost sight of those limitations. I got distracted by the work, the money, and by ambition and the need for ego gratification. And, of course, there was the fear of not knowing what I’d do if I gave up the law.

So, I kept my head down and worked my ass off. And, I was able to hold my own.

For awhile.

Not long after I started my career in private practice, I began to receive subtle hints that something was off. Oh, sure, I could talk the lingo, but over time it became clearer and clearer to me that I was not on the same plane as my colleagues. They seemed to “get” things, which I didn’t. It seemed that they saw things in 3-D, and I only saw 2-D. Their memos and briefs were terse, incisive, and used immutable logic to go from beginning to end. My written work was wordy, bloated and often left gaps in logic that required the reader – senior partners or, worse yet, judges – to work hard to understand what the hell I was trying to say.

At first, I did what anyone in my shoes would do. I panicked, and I got scared.

Problem was, being scared didn’t make my work any better. In fact, it probably made it worse. I became tentative and second-guessed myself constantly, and as anyone will tell you, once you start second-guessing, it’s all over.

Not quite. Actually, it’s not over till someone notices.

Someone did. Someones, to be exact—the senior partners for whom I worked. And, as sure as night follows day, I got a call one afternoon to come into the office early the next morning to meet with a couple of partners.

They were nice. They were courteous. They told me how much everyone liked me, how I was a nice guy, fun to be around and easy to get along with. But, they said, your work just isn’t where it ought to be for someone of your level.

Although I knew they were right, to hear it said out loud was rough because until someone says it out loud, you can still pretend it’s not true. And, of course, there’s not a thing you can do to change it. So, this hurt. It hurt bad.

But, putting that to one side for the moment, what this incident did was merely confirm what I already knew: that I did not have the requisite “stuff” to be a great lawyer, running with the big dogs. I may have the “stuff” to be a great something else—and I’m hoping that I have the “stuff” to be a great comic, which is my new chosen profession—but I don’t have the stuff to be a “great lawyer.” My limitations—particularly my lack of passion for law and my lack of desire to engage in confrontation—doomed my legal career almost from the moment it started.

So, what’s the lesson in this? It means know—and acknowledge—your own limitations. Are your limitations ones you can address? Perhaps you just need help with your writing or with your trial advocacy or your marketing and networking skills. Perhaps you have tremendous passion for the law, but you just have one or two skill sets that are rusty or need sharpening. If that’s the case, and you want things to improve, by all means go out and do the things you need to do to improve your skills.

Or maybe you have the raw skills, the talent, the natural abilities, but you lack the passion, the drive, the commitment. That’s every bit as significant a limitation. Indeed, perhaps more so, for without passion and interest in what you’re doing, you’ll never have the necessary discipline to do all that’s needed to succeed, at least not over the long haul.

As a result, maybe this is the time to recognize that your dissatisfaction with or your failings in law are a sign that you should not be in the field. For example, Einstein, apparently, wasn’t much of a patent clerk. But, he was a heck of a physicist.

So, use this. Don’t get too down. Don’t feel like an abject failure. Don’t dwell on the feeling that “I’ll never be a great ambulance chaser.” Maybe you weren’t really cut out for it. Maybe you were meant to drive the ambulance.

Whatever the case may be, start by being honest with yourself. Know your limitations.



  1. Avatar Bgirlchic says:

    Thank you for this article and your transparency! Many lawyers feel this way and hit the nail on the head. Very encouraging.

    • Avatar Alex Barnett says:

      Glad you enjoyed the article. My hope in my posts is to be as open and honest about my experience as possible, as I think it will resonate with others (which you have confirmed). I know that when I went through these issues, I felt very alone, and the more people I meet who’ve had similar experiences, the more it keeps occurring to me that sometimes all people need is to know that they’re not alone, that they’re not odd or weird, but that they’re experiencing the very same feelings as many others. Sometimes that in and of itself can give people enough strength to make some proactive decisions.

      All the best.

  2. Really enjoyed your article, Alex. When it comes to self-limitations, often times it boils down to taking the time to really reflect on what it is you want and how to go about getting it. One way to do this is to take a sabbatical. Now, the idea of a sabbatical is different from a vacation. It’s more a time to explore special interests or achieve specific goals. (In my case, planning the next twelve months of Me, Inc.) Many firms are adopting the idea of extended paid leave but let’s face it, as a busy lawyer you probably wouldn’t take it even if you could. That being said, if there’s one thing we all need right now, it is fresh ideas and renewed vitality for the challenges we are facing. Really enjoyed your article, Alex. When it comes to self-limitations, often times it boils down to taking the time to really reflect on what it is you want and how to go about getting it. One way to do this is to take a sabbatical. Now, the idea of a sabbatical is different from a vacation. It’s more a time to explore special interests or achieve specific goals. (In my case, planning the next twelve months of Me, Inc.) Many firms are adopting the idea of extended paid leave but let’s face it, as a busy lawyer you probably wouldn’t take it even if you could. That being said, if there’s one thing we all need right now, it is fresh ideas and renewed vitality for the challenges we are facing.

  3. Avatar Alex Barnett says:

    Robin: I’m so glad you liked the article. That’s great!

    I never had the opportunity to take a planned sabbatical, but it sounds like a great idea. If you have any resources or further information about sabbaticals, please do send them in. I’m sure people would really appreciate that.

    All the best.

  4. Avatar Di says:

    Thanks for a really insightful article. Perfect timing. I am considering law school and I’m sure its all for the wrong reasons, such as you noted: ego gratification, but mainly just to prove to myself that I can achieve such a high status position. Let’s face it, attorneys are perceived in this manner. But to make my ambitions less shallow, I do like the idea of law. The idea of studying and researching how and why our society functions. And the ability to study subjects on a personal level (clients), plus research (case law).

    I appreciate this article. It makes me question if I’m ignoring my limitations.

    I’m not the confrontational type, and though, I get the satisfaction of “winning” arguments here and there, I am much more satisfied playing the mediator. The friend that gives advice and comes up with great, creative solutions to girlfriends problems (like what to wear to a wedding, haha). Anyway, this is the issue I’m dealing with currently. Can I be a lawyer despite not liking confrontation? I tell myself YES! you can be whatever you want because who the heck defined the lawyer archetype.

    Then I think of my friend that just graduated from law school. She does not do confrontations, in-fact, I am more argumentative and outspoken than her. The differences? Whereas I am impassioned about social issues, she is impartial and logical. Whereas I am analytical and observant, she is cool and unassuming. It seems she oozes “lawyerish” from every pore. And I admire her because she’s got the stuff -the cojones, so to speak to be a great lawyer.

    But what makes a great lawyer? I’ve always thought it was having passion for what you believed in -coupled with the traits you mentioned.

    My doubts arise from knowing her and from knowing myself. Do I know my limitations? Do lawyers have a prototype personality?

    Thanks again for this article, I wish more lawyers expressed their doubts and shortcomings candidly.

    *Congrats to your new path!

  5. Avatar Alex Barnett says:

    Di: Thanks for writing in. Kudos to you for exploring whether law school is right for you before actually leaping in. Law can be a rewarding profession for those who really enjoy lawyering and all that entails. But ask any lawyer who doesn’t love the process, and you’ll quickly see how unsatisfying it can be for those who aren’t passionate about the process.

    My suggestion — if possible, see if you can work for a time in a law firm as a paralegal or other support staff person to get a better sense for what happens from the inside. Short of that, see if you can set up informational interviews with a variety of lawyers (litigators, corporate lawyers, tax attorneys, patent/IP attorneys, judges, lawyers who work in the non-profit/government sector). Ask them about their jobs and careers. Ask them if they’re happy. What they like. What they don’t like. What they would change if they could. That’ll at least give you some sense of what the profession is like.

    Best of luck to you!

  6. Avatar Bernard Durey says:

    I recently just surfed in. I was looking for something on “knowing your limitations.” It had been mentioned in a group setting about fifteen years ago. It recently came up after I answered some survey questions,which I thought were kind of loaded questions. One pertained to or went something like this. If going back to school would get you a job or a better job would you? So sometime went by and someone called about the question and he and I opted to check out Criminal Justice. I almost wanted to start a knew bill up called Criminal Justice in the Education Department. Yesturday I spoke with one counelor and suggested he would not let me go that route because it would certainly limit some areas like the Federal Bureau of Investigations and many police departments. He thought the age cut off for many police departments for new hires was around 35 and for the FBI he thought it was age 42. So why would you wish to spend $30,000 to $60,000 in education in that field when you are limiting your area due to age from jump street. So knowing ones limitations may also increase their potential. Once again thanks for your site and I apologize if there are in typographical errors or grammatical errors,etc.

  7. Avatar Gen Tor says:

    May I just say that your article reaches so many more people than lawyers! I graduated Summa Cum Laude and then got a Master’s. I can kick butt as a writer and in sales (weird combo, I know). Then, I decided I needed to travel less and changed from a sales position (where I’d been promoted 3 times in 3 years) to a technical writing position for a software company. The kicker? I was just looking for a job in town–not the right fit. I don’t care much for technology, software or learning fifty different software programs for communicating “step one: turn the computer on.” I have no passion for what I’m doing and it’s so frustrating when I don’t ‘get’ what others do. This morning I realized that I haven’t suddenly become dumb; this just isn’t for me. It’s not the right fit. I have felt like a complete failure for months now, second-guessing myself and trying to hide my lack of knowledge in the tech world. Last Friday, my supervisor told me that where he thought I would be something special for this company with my financial and writing background, that I have turned out to be just normal and very UN-special. It hurt so bad. I spent all weekend thinking how unspecial and crappy I must be. Your article has given me new perspective. Thank you so, so much! You may not have made it as a lawyer but you have helped me immensely by sharing your story! You are amazing and I appreciate your honesty where I had trouble being honest with myself! Starting today, I’m going to start re-assessing what I’m doing and what I’d prefer to be doing! Thank you! Thank you!

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