Denver Bar Association
July 2012
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Walking the Path of the Professional

by Doug McQuiston

Doug McQuiston


ur license makes us lawyers. But it isn’t what makes us professionals. Our clients, less experienced colleagues, associates, and partners—even our adversaries—measure us not just by our license or the quality of the legal counsel we give, but by our approach to the practice. In fact, it is there that our professionalism is most often either apparent or found wanting.

We lose sight of this in the smoke of the "fires" we have to put out every day. I fail at least as often as I succeed in measuring up to the high expectations I have of myself, and that others have of me. But striving to measure up is essential to our success, even our happiness, in the profession. It is a path, not a destination, and it lasts our whole lives.

One of the best books I have read about this subject is actually not a "professionalism" book at all. A while back, I read an excellent novel by Steven Pressfield. That book prompted me to learn more about him. I discovered he had a pretty impressive list of books and screenplays to his name, including "The Legend of Bagger Vance."

He also had quite a backstory. Pressfield faced decades of failure before he finally got any of his works published. He had countless opportunities to give up and even did a time or two along the way. But he somehow managed, after years of wandering in the wilderness, to get up, struggle to his feet, and stagger back to the path. Only after all those failures did he find success as a professional writer. His failures, it turns out, showed him how to succeed.

He tackled the subject in a short nonfiction book, "The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle" (2002, Rugged Land). The book describes his discovery of what it took to be a professional writer. While his views on how to approach the author’s life are a little extreme, his thoughts on the process of being a professional, of just getting up every day and "putting in the work," as he puts it, are thought-provoking.

The path is not easy. If it was, "anyone could do it," Pressfield observes, (rolling out the old cliché). He talks about how "resistance," (the sum of all those forces trying to pull us off the path) attacks us daily. The days we can look back and say we fought it to a draw are good days. Those rare days when we can look back and see a little victory are great days.

But walking the path can be its own reward. Setbacks or failures along the way can’t defeat us, and the crosswinds of resistance cannot push us off the path, unless we let them. Resistance has no power but what we give it, whether in our work or our lives.

The path has a start, but no finish. It is a journey that is entirely within our power to undertake. No one can stop us anymore than anyone can make us walk it. Nothing can force us onto the path, nor pull us from it, unless we let it.

Every day will bring new crises, detours, or challenges. It is up to us to get up every day, lace up our boots, and start walking, right through them all. If we do that because we value the journey, not because someone or some governing body tells us to, we will be professionals.

It isn’t just about how we go about our business when people are watching, though. In fact, how we conduct ourselves when no one can see is what truly distinguishes us as professionals. True professionals hold themselves to high standards, not because our ethics rules require it or because others might judge them. Rules and professional standards are important, but true professionals hold themselves accountable because they wouldn’t judge themselves as worthy of self-respect if they didn’t.

Here are Pressfield’s observations about the professional’s path—they have clear parallels to our profession, too:

October is Professionalism Month

Chief Justice Michael L. Bender has declared October as Legal Professionalism Month. Members of the profession are invited to attend the Assembly of Lawyers at the Boettcher Concert Hall on Oct. 29, and immediately thereafter to attend a special session of the Colorado Supreme Court to welcome new admittees to the practice of law. See the May issue of The Colorado Lawyer for more information.

• A professional is patient
• A professional demystifies
• A professional acts in the face of fear
• A professional accepts no excuses
• A professional plays it as it lays
• A professional is prepared
• A professional does not show off
• A professional dedicates him or herself to mastering technique
• A professional does not hesitate to ask for help
• A professional distances him or herself from his or her instrument
• A professional does not take failure (or success) personally
• A professional endures adversity
• A professional self-validates
• A professional recognizes his or her limitations
• A professional reinvents him or herself
• A professional is recognized by other professionals.

Every day blesses us with a chance to get it right. True happiness can come to us by making the choice to try. The alternative is not worth contemplating. If you want to dedicate (or rededicate) yourself to walking the Path, Pressfield cites excellent advice, from Scottish explorer W.H. Murray , to get you started:

"Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would not otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have dreamed would come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. Begin it now.’" D


Doug McQuiston has been a lawyer in Colorado for more than 30 years. He is a member, contributing writer, and past chair of the Denver Bar Association Docket Committee. He has been a contributing editor of the CBA Litigation Section News and is a member of the DBA-CBA Professionalism Coordinating Council. This article represents his views only, and not those of the council.

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