Should a lawyer feel embarrassed about being ambitious? Like intelligence, ambition has no inherent moral qualities. However, unlike intelligence, ambition is not morally neutral. Ambition is a kind of a character trait, capable of enhancing or ruining every ambitious person’s life. To turn Hamlet’s “nothing either good or bad” (act 2, scene 2) on its head, ambition always takes on moral qualities. Ambitious actions affect others.
All rainmaking lawyers and successful in-house and government lawyers are ambitious. Lasting success does not come without desire. People sometimes “inherit” great practices, but those practices scatter if the inheritor does not have the ambition to keep them.
There are different ways to get ahead. Greed and pride are vices. Ambition coupled with concern can raise all boats.
In this important week for the country and the Supreme Court, I want to notice two rather different instances of ambitious conduct by lawyers, one a Supreme Court Justice and one a frequent Supreme Court litigant.
During Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings, Clarence Thomas said, “If you are asking me whether or not I have ever debated the contents of it [Roe v. Wade], that answer to that is no, Senator.” Senate Confirmation Hearings, Sep 11, 1991. I have real doubts that Justice Thomas’ answer was literally true, but believe instead that it was said to achieve his ambition.
David Boies says that in 1997 he had “a multimillion-dollar-per-year income, total job security, and the best lawyers in the country on my cases.” (BW Magazine, October 25, 2010). He also had a longstanding client with a recently developed conflict with his firm. Over four days, in order to be “loyal” to both his firm and his client, Mr. Boies started his own firm, with one client. Yes, he was one of the best lawyers in the world and had all reason for optimism, but it would have been tempting to stay in the comfort of home. Others have swept conflicts under the rug or left loyal clients out to dry. Loyalty, coupled with outsized ambition, created a great firm.
Properly managed, with a keen eye on ethics, your ambition can be a great motivator for making rain and career success. Don’t hide it under a bushel.