Insights From A Career-Defining Letter

When Wes Zirkle received a four-page letter from his Uncle Jack that espoused advice on being a lawyer, he had no idea the effect it would have on his career. In his words, Zirkle, now general counsel at Just Marketing International, remembers the takeaways from that letter and connects them to moments in his career

It’s not always easy to be the good guy in this profession. Frankly, it’s easier to be a dickhead. Civility, especially in contentious situations, takes effort. As I’ve matured in my career, I have started to appreciate the individual my uncle is, the way he conducts himself as a professional, and the great deal of effort it must take him. He had an important influence on the way I think professionals ought to behave and how people should treat other people.

When my uncle was a young attorney, a superior asked him to do something that was legal but not right, in his opinion. My uncle thought about it and made the decision not to do it, knowing it could mean losing his job. He wrote a memo to his superior and copied the superior’s superior, explaining what he was asked to do, and why he didn’t feel it was right. Eventually, my uncle got promoted, and the other guy didn’t stay with the company. It was an example, to me, that there will be moments at crossroads, and that doing the right thing is worth personal risk but is usually rewarded.

I had that crossroad moment as a new attorney. It was a moment when I thought the way something was going down wasn’t right. Uncle Jack’s letter was in my mind. I decided that I had to say “No.” First thing in the morning, I was sitting in my car at the office, and I was finally like, “OK, let’s just go get fired.” And it was terrifying because I needed that job. But I stood my ground, and from that moment on, that person respected me and treated me better. I remember thinking, “Huh, that actually worked.”

People respect those who have integrity. You have to stand up for what is right. You have to stand up for the truth. When you have a moment in which there is clearly a right way and a maybe-not-so-right way to do something, and you’re standing your ground over ethical reasons, other people will respect that. They may not like you, but they will respect you. It adds another dimension to your character as a professional. There are a lot of lawyers who can do the same thing and do it very well, but what sets people apart is the person they are.

Be an advocate, but always be fair. Especially in transactional practice, if you screw somebody, they will figure it out, and it will damage the relationship between the parties. I once heard a prominent attorney speak at a conference about putting their best case forward in a document and making the other side fight for every point. What crap! Not only does that waste valuable time for everybody—because non-issues become issues—it is disrespectful to the other side. Don’t make the other side ask for what you should already have given them.

Almost as a rule, I don’t believe in standard terms and conditions. I hate them. To use them is to basically say, “I don’t have the time to care how this deal really impacts you. I don’t care. I have to get this off my desk so I can do something else. Standard terms are easier for me and my client, which is more important than the needs of you and your client.”

If the first impression you make on the other party is a disregard for their needs, that’s the wrong tone. Especially at the beginning of a new deal, if you as a lawyer are not respectful, and you don’t treat the other side with respect and don’t listen to their concerns, the business relationship starts off in the wrong place.

I believe that everybody is fundamentally good, but it’s all about how they work through adversity and how they interact with other people that makes the difference. It’s something you have to be conscious of every day. Some interactions are very easy. Some take thought. You have to think very deliberately about other people. You have to be very aware that how you carry yourself affects other people. I don’t think it’s necessarily difficult to do, but it isn’t natural. It is natural to go to work and want to complain about the commute, whatever. But the person you are talking to has his own problems. Focus on lifting him up.

Lawyers get a bad rap—but clichés exist for a reason. I think a lot of lawyers are too competitive. They think of the profession as a series of win-lose scenarios. I think a lot of lawyers look at the practice of law like it’s just a game. I hate the phrase, “It’s just business.” That’s supposed justification for being a jerk.

You can be an advocate and be civil. I suppose there are situations in which there really should be a winner and a loser, but I think the majority of legal practice is about finding solutions. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to find solutions, even in litigation.