A Talk by Jim Noles

Balch & Bingham LLP

September 17, 2015

Cumberland School of Law

First-year students at Cumberland participate in the Law and Legal Reasoning (LLR) Department’s “Called to the Bar” program, which exposes them to programming that focuses on professionalism, ethics, and the duties of lawyering. The program also includes a forum for students to receive personal guidance and support through mentoring, as well as individual assistance on written assignments. In September of 2015, Jim Noles, an environmental lawyer from Balch & Bingham LLP, gave a talk on the importance of cultivating a professional identity. We reproduce Noles’s observations here in the belief that they are the sort that any current or aspiring attorneys should keep in mind.


 “Crafting your professional identity.” Put another way, “crafting your identity in the legal profession.” Speaking of the legal profession, let me share an observation with you – and, importantly, I don’t do this as a graduate of Cumberland but, rather, as a graduate of the University of Texas and thus an impartial observer.

This fall, you embarked on a journey into the legal profession on a path that has started – here at Cumberland – in the same school that marked the beginning of a remarkable number of successful careers. How many law schools can boast a former Secretary of State among their graduates?  Particularly one that earned the Nobel Peace Prize? How many law schools can boast two U.S. Supreme Court justices among their graduates? Your alumni include judges on U.S Courts of Appeals, federal district courts, and state supreme courts.  Over fifty of them have served in the United States Congress, five of them in the Senate.  At least nine of them were governors.

But, in all seriousness, you can count among your alumni a gentleman named James Edwin Horton.  I’ll say that name again.  James Edwin Horton.  I could talk all day about Judge Horton but, rather than that, I challenge you to look him up.  You’ll be proud, in three years, to call yourself a fellow alumnus of his. So, let me start by saying congratulations.  You’ve chosen a law school with a remarkable history and you’ve joined a collection of fellow students whose only limits on their professional success are the limits that they place on themselves. And that is probably a good segue into my talk today – crafting your professional identity – and, importantly, beginning to craft it now.

* * * * *

Maybe it seems early in your time here to be thinking about your professional identity.  After all, you haven’t even taken your first exam yet, or dropped your first resume yet for an on-campus interview.  Maybe some of you haven’t even been called upon in class yet. But I do not think it is too early to be talking about entering the legal profession, because it is a profession that (thanks to Cumberland) you shared with those graduates that I just mentioned – and, even more importantly, that you already share with the people sitting to your left and right.

“The people sitting to your left and right.”  That’s a very important point – and maybe my most important point.  This is because, probably for the first time in your adult life for many of you, you’ve recently found yourselves with a group of people that are all tracking in the same direction.  You are, God willing, all going to be lawyers.

That was not the case when you were in high school.  In high school, some of you were heading off to college, and some of you weren’t.  And your friends were going to various different colleges, weren’t they?   And then, in college, you were majoring in different courses of study and pursuing different careers and applying to different graduate schools.  But now – now – you are all tracking in the same direction.  You are with a group of people – and you are going to spend the next three years with that group of people – who, one day, will find themselves sharing the legal profession with you for what may be a lifetime.

And so, in many ways, you have already been called to the bar. You may not have necessarily crossed it yet; you may not have joined it. But you’ve certainly been called to it. That’s why I think it that it is not too early to decide what kind of person you are going to be within that profession.

What kind of person? I’m guessing that you want to be a successful person within that profession. And so, from my perspective, I’ll offer you the following four suggestions – even if they are biased by what I believe constitutes successful in the legal profession. What “successful” means for you is something that you’re going to have to decide for yourself. But, for now, let’s talk about what I think will help you to craft a professional identity as what I think of as a successful lawyer. I have four suggestions.

* * * * *

Suggestion No. 1: Your reputation starts now. Build it.

How are you going to be remembered in three years? How are you going to be remembered by your classmates in thirteen years?   When they are judges, or co-counsels, or adversaries, or district attorneys, or clients?

Are they going to remember that you were a gunner? That you hid books in the library? That you never shared your outlines? That you never kept commitments to your study group or your colleagues on the law review? That you were a gossip? That you cheated? That you slept around? That you posted mean things things on Facebook? That you acted like a drunken buffoon every time a keg was tapped within a half-mile radius?

Or are they going to remember that you were a gentleman? That you were a lady? That you were kind? Humble? Trustworthy? Considerate? That you were hard working? That your word was your bond?

In three years. In thirteen years. In thirty years. How are the people sitting to your left and right going to remember you.

To repeat: Your reputation starts now, in your first semester, first year of law school.  It will be a part of your professional identity thirty years from now. Get to work building it.

* * * * *

Suggestion No. 2: Learn how to learn.

You’ve already learned a lot – and learned it successfully – or you wouldn’t be sitting here today. But the legal profession demands that you never stop learning. Every new case, every new transaction, and every new client, will require that you learn something new. To a large extent, your success is going to depend upon your ability to learn those new things. So learn how to learn. Law school is the perfect laboratory for you to figure out how you best learn. So take these next three years and figure it out.   It will not just benefit you in law school but it will benefit you when you graduate from law school. And, most importantly, it will benefit your clients.

To repeat: Learn how to learn. An ability to learn will be part of your professional identity – or it won’t be.

* * * * *

Suggestion No. 3: Hone your focus. Or, more precisely, hone your ability to focus.

As I was preparing for this talk, I actually spoke with a number of Cumberland graduates. One of them is the in-house counsel responsible for intellectual property matters for a major internet services company. And the piece of advice that she wanted me to share was “tell them to hone their focus.” I’ve thought about that advice and I think I’ll modify it slightly. I’ll advise you, at the present time, to “hone your ability to focus.” If you can do that, then you’ll be able to hone your focus in your legal career when the time comes.

What do I mean by “honing your ability to focus”? How do you even do that? Several ideas come to mind:

One. Be in the moment. If you are in a conversation, be in the moment. Listen to what the other person is saying. Be there – in that conversation.

If you are in a class, be in that moment. Go to the class – and go to it prepared. When you are there, be there. Participate – at least mentally. Take notes. Prepare outlines. Be there – in that class.

If you are in a summer job, be in that moment. Give your employer an honest day’s work. That’s not the time to be working on your law review note. Learn about your employer’s firm. Learn about your employer’s clients. Try to leave there – or leave the projects on which you worked while you were there – better than you found them. Be there – on that job.

Two. Steel yourself against distractions. When I was in law school, the most compelling distractions that I faced were crossword puzzles and a certain young lady who sat two rows in front of me.

But you have far more invasive distractions. Smart phones. Laptops. Emails. Texts. Tweets. Facebook. On-line fantasy football. An ability to read the newspaper or play Angry Birds on your laptop.

And so I suggest this to you: Learn to resist the urge to check your texts in a meeting with a client. Learn to resist the urge to catch up on your emails while in a meeting. Cordell Hull would not have read a copy of the Washington Post during a cabinet meeting. Judge Horton would not have done a crossword puzzle during a particularly boring voir dire. Challenge yourself to exercise a similar level of self-discipline. Build that discipline – and build it now.

Three. Finally, commit to being focused on the task at hand. If your focus is indeed law school, then act like it. Law school is a job. Treat it like a job. Put in the quality hours. Put in the quality work.

So hone your ability to focus. Grow that ability to focus. Do it now by (i) investing in the moment; (ii) steeling yourself against distractions; and (iii) committing to being focused on the task at hand.

Hone your ability to focus. Make an ability to focus part of your professional identity.

* * * * *

Suggestion No. 4. Stay strong.

Resist the voices – whether boasted belligerently from billboards or suggested subtly in the media – that suggest that the law is not an honorable profession. Those voices are out there, and they are insidious. And if you listen to them, believe me – you will listen to them to your detriment. So find a way to remember the good about our shared calling.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how you, individually, will do that.

Maybe it is to go read To Kill a Mockingbird again.

Maybe it is to make a point of spending some time with whoever encouraged you or inspired you to go to law school in the first place. That’s probably a pretty good idea, come to think of it. On your way home today, pick up the phone and call that person. Touch base.

Maybe it is to find the opportunity to do service projects, or pro bono work, or a clinic, and to experience the face-to-face reminder of the good that a good lawyer can do.

So however you do it, stay strong. Stay true to the ideals and inspiration that called you to the bar in the first place. Make pride in your profession part of your professional identity.

* * * * *

Well, I hope that I at least have you thinking that there might actually be some value to be thinking about your professional identity now – again, think about that person to your left and right. And I hope that your vision of an appropriate professional identity – and what constitutes success within that profession – is the same as mine. And if it is, then:

  1. Build – and nurture – your reputation.
  1. Learn how to learn.
  1. Hone your ability to focus.
  1. Stay strong.

And, to quote the great Forrest Gump, “that’s all I got to say about that.”




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