(part of a program for the Louisiana Bar Association and the Louisiana Judicial College)

Success in pursuing a legal career, like success in mountaineering, is a matter of setting long term and short term goals, committing to achieve those goals and making adjustments along the way to improve the chance of living the dream. Let’s start with success in mountaineering.

Success in Mountaineering

When I decided to climb Mt. Everest, I set a long term goal, which was to summit Mt. Everest not once, but twice-first from the South Approach, which begins in Nepal, and second from the more difficult North Approach, which begins in Tibet. With my long term goal in place, I then set a series of short term goals, which included mentally committing to achieve my goal, training hard, learning from my mistakes and seeking counsel from people I trust. When I was on the mountain, my short term goals were to reach each camp in fine fettle. When I started up the mountain from Base Camp, I focused just on reaching Camp 1, and not on reaching the summit or even Camps 2, 3 and 4. My strategy was to break the climb down into small pieces, instead of focusing on the overwhelming nature of the challenge to reach the summit.

Success in mountaineering also requires a willingness to make adjustments to improve the chance of achieving the long term goal. I have climbed Mt. Everest six times. I summitted twice, once from the South Approach in 2009 and once from the North Approach in 2014. But, four times I had to turn around and come down the mountain, even though I was on the final ridgeline, within 1,000 feet of the summit, and with all of the hard climbing behind me. I came down because I did a risk assessment and did not feel it was safe to continue. I am 100% certain that I would now be frozen on that mountain if I had not made that decision. When the summit is within sight and you decide to go down, that is channeling strength, not weakness. As I headed back down the mountain, my long term goal was intact, and I was already planning my climb of Mt. Everest the following year. Patience and persistence paid off and my dream eventually came true.

Success in the Law

When I entered Stanford Law School in 1964, my goal was to join a preeminent law firm upon graduation. I worked hard and joined a leading law firm in Los Angeles. When I started practice, I set two long term goals: first, to become a leader in my field of expertise, and second, to retire at age 60. The second goal was especially important because I did not want my life outside my family to be one dimensional. In my grey hairs, I wanted to start a whole new chapter of my life by doing something completely different and equally satisfying.

As a young associate, I found that much of the work assigned to me was dull, tedious and boring. So, I set two short term goals. First, to excel in the work assigned to me in the hope that I would be given more challenging projects. This strategy worked well, and I advanced rapidly in the firm. Second, I decided to broaden my legal horizons by engaging in pro bono lecturing, legal writing and law reform. That was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I pursued these efforts for my entire career. I was given five Lifetime Achievement Awards by different organizations for my work in these three areas.

Eventually, I began to burn out in my legal specialty-real estate finance-because the deals became too familiar and “cookie cutter” in nature. I needed a change, so my short term goal became to expand my practice specialties. As fate would have it, the New York firms were opening offices in Los Angeles and I was approached by Shearman & Sterling to open its Los Angeles office. In 1986, I joined Shearman & Sterling and my practice, and practice specialties, exploded. The deals became larger and more complex and my practice specialties broadened to include structured finance, securitization, capital markets, international law, appellate law, reorganization and bankruptcy and legislative advocacy. I had to teach myself the disciplines applicable to each of these practice areas. My Senior Partner once described me as a true Renaissance Lawyer. He could not have paid me a higher compliment. At Shearman & Sterling, I was also given the opportunity to work in the Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York offices of the firm.

As a nice bonus, the Shearman & Sterling retirement plan allowed me to retire with full benefits at age 60, which I did. Two years before retirement, I started thinking about post-retirement. That is when I settled on high altitude mountaineering. Now that I have accomplished my goals in mountaineering, I am considering new long term goals for the time I have left.

Concluding Thoughts

What’s your dream? What long term and short term goals have you set to make your dream come true? What actions have you taken to reach your summit? What changes have you made to improve your chance of success? I urge you to take action now. If not now….when? Pray tell, when?

If, despite your best efforts to achieve your goal, you do not find your station in life satisfying, maybe it’s time to rethink your long term goal. One of the beauties of a law degree is that it opens so many doors to other careers. I have never met a person who changed careers, early in life, in middle age or as a senior, who felt he/ she made a mistake. I once met a famous Wall Street lawyer who retired early and took a job teaching and counseling troubled teenagers in impoverished neighborhoods. He told me those were the most satisfying years of his life. I could give many other examples.

Dream big, set lofty goals and make good things happen for you. Trust in yourself, trust in those who care about you and, most important, trust in God.

William M. Burke