Tenzing Norgay (right) and Edmund Hillary after successfully completing the first ascent of Mount Everest at 11.30am, 29 May 1953. Via Wikimedia Commons.

About six months ago, I hopped on a conference call with some colleagues who asked me to deliver the keynote address for the annual convention of the National Docketing Association.*  The people the organizers expected to attend are the professional staffers– mostly non-lawyers– who make sure that those magic litigation machines called “law firms” run efficiently.  In short, they’re the support people in firms and court clerks’ offices who make sure lawyers can be lawyers—and that clients can win– by handling the processes that really don’t have much connection to legal analysis.  Processes that drive lawyers nuts. 

Okay, I said, what should I talk about?

“Well,” said the committee, “something to fire up our members and remind them of their worth in their organizations.  We’re going to be in Denver, so see if you can work in something about mountains and that sherpa thing that you list as your job title on LinkedIn.”

SureNo problem, I said, having not taken enough time to contemplate the sheer terror that my imposter syndrome was about to throw my way.

Somehow it was well received, and thanks to Peggy (my wife), we even had a couple of fun exercises thrown into the mix as well.  It’s time to share the highlights with a broader audience, because this stuff applies everywhere—not just in law firms and courthouses.  I analogized what we do and how our firms succeed to the intrepid climbing masters of the Himalayas: sherpas.**  A distillation of my address:

Point 1: There is no such thing as a self-made man.  Or a self-made woman.  Period.

That concept has always bugged the hell out of me– seriously.  I owe my modest success to teachers and mentors and clients and benefactors… not to mention a spectacular wife.  We all need help getting to the summit.  And without somebody there to tell us “hey, that ice sheet is about to be a 300-foot deep crevasse… don’t stand there,” we’re toast.  Every organization, every leader, every successful person has to have sherpas around.  If they don’t, success will not come.

Point 2:  We have to have faith in the people guiding us.

Face it.  You don’t know everything you need to know.  Nobody knows everything they need to know.  But if we decide we’re smarter than the people around us, we’re toast.

Point 3:  Lawyers have a tough time just accepting things on faith.

Lawyers are trained to be skeptical.  Skepticism is hammered into our thought processes from Day One of law school, and it doesn’t let up.  Ever.  So it’s tough to accept what our support team tells us without a whole bunch of justification.

Point 4: This skepticism is normal, and it’s not personal, so give us a bit of grace.

(Remember that I was speaking to 200 law firm & courthouse support staffers).  Seriously, we’re not ogres.  We’ve got layers.

Point 5:  But remember… you know your stuff better than they do, and you can do it far more efficiently than they can.

I’m constantly beating the outsourcing drum, telling lawyers that spending eight hours researching and executing an issue they can pay me to handle in two is, well, silly.  It’s also silly for lawyers to handle docketing and filing and calendaring when they have a perfectly capable docketing staff (or paralegal or L.A.) who knows how to navigate ECF/PACER.  As it turns out, knowledgeable support people are force multipliers— no matter their industry or organization.  This is particularly true in the law.

Point 6:  Without you, the lawyer isn’t going to summit the mountain.

Without Tenzing Norgay, Sir Edmund Hillary wouldn’t be Sir anything.  Instead of a knight, he’d just be Teddy the Beekeeper from Auckland.  Likewise, there’s no way a lawyer can reach the true heights of success without people to help her/him get there.  That may not mean a staff, and it may not even mean somebody like me to handle Hague Service Convention requests (<– yes, I stuck that in to get the Googlez to notice me).  But nobody succeeds without help.

See Point 1 above.


* Heartiest thanks to the NDA’s Executive Committee, who had the goofy idea of bringing me on board as a motivational speaker, rather than a garden-variety CLE presenter.  It really was an honor, and a whole lot of fun.

** The word “Sherpa” has a double meaning.  Capitalized, a Sherpa is a member of a tiny ethic minority native to the Himalaya Mountains.  The lowercase sherpa is a job classification, referring to the people who get western climbers to the summits of Everest, K2, etc.  They are not just porters—they’re expert guides as well, and they have a particular biological adaptation to the thin atmosphere of those peaks: their blood vessels are larger than the rest of us, so their bodies can process oxygen faster.

Some book recommendations I made: