Law student blogger Ricky Nelson (a pseudonym) expressed anxiety on a recent post about a fellowship he’d received:
I’d prefer people [don’t] know that I … have this offer. I’m glad I have it and I already have a ton of work to do for it. But it’s very difficult to talk about with people who [don’t also] have it. Because after someone overhears me getting free lunch with a prof or sees me carrying around another legal book and [asks], “What’s that for?” I have to let them know about the fellowship. … The reaction to the news is always the same, “Whoa! How’d you get that offer?” Sometimes people are asking this purely out of curiosity, but I’ve sensed many people have asked this out of jealousy. I can’t blame them for being jealous. I’d be jealous of me too.
Ricky’s admission got us thinking: How does a law student or associate handle competition? How does one manage others’ potential jealousy when one finds success? And how does one manage one’s own jealousy when others find it?
When confronted with competition, remember that everyone you’re dealing with in law school or in a firm is an important future ally. You don’t ever want to burn bridges because your most aggressive competitors can be excellent referral sources, and rival lawyers whom you don’t get along with today might be your most important clients five years from now.
For example, let’s say you work at a law firm and you’ve got a competitor who becomes in-house counsel for a major corporation. All of the sudden, that person whom you were competing with is now somebody whom you want to do business with.
So the goal is to not allow your desire to beat your competition to burn bridges. The goal is to always do your best to demonstrate that you are a quality person with high values and great skills. You competition needs to see you as confident and capable and yet not bragging or in any way offensive.
If you are concerned about bragging about your success, make sure that you understand what bragging is. Bragging may include a level of self-importance that is not necessarily valid. Bragging may include exaggerating. Bragging may include rubbing it in somebody’s face.
If I tell you, “I was awarded a fellowship, and I’m really proud of it and excited about it, but frankly I have some concerns because it does put added pressure on me,” that’s a lot different from saying, “Ha ha! I got a fellowship and you didn’t!”
There’s a distinction between bragging and accurately communicating a success story. At Kohn Communications, we talk about the concept of “substantiating your value,” and the way you substantiate your success is by backing it up with facts. If you have facts that you’ve described accurately, that is not bragging.
Don’t exaggerate the importance of your success, but don’t minimize it either. Don’t demean yourself: self-deprecating dialogue won’t position you as a lawyer someone wants to hire in the future. Express pleasure and satisfaction with your success.
In addition, credit others who have assisted you and express their importance. Acknowledge the value of the team. Whenever you can, say, “Yeah, I’m really proud of my success, but it couldn’t have happened without my studying partners,” or “It couldn’t have happened without the support of my professors.” Acknowledging others is a really good way of diffusing attention while still admitting your success.
When Others Succeed
The fact is that we may be jealous of the success of others. You need to acknowledge that but keep in mind that your goal is to maintain relationships. If you find yourself experiencing jealousy toward a classmate or colleague, don’t let that stop you from treating him or her nicely.