February 2018

Advice for Newer Attorneys From “The Ten-Dollar Founding Father”1

By Jeffrey Chinn

Director of Career Services, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

The musical “Hamilton” has been a phenomenon with unreal demand for tickets and a popular soundtrack. After seeing a performance during its San Diego run, I began to think about lessons that newer attorneys can learn from a person who “got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self starter.”2

When to Take the Initiative and Be Assertive

In many situations, it is natural to want to defer to more experienced attorneys. But young attorneys should have confidence in their own skills and aspirations. Hamilton is young (19) but knows he's smart and just needs some polishing. “I am not throwing away my shot, hey yo, I'm just like my country, I'm young, scrappy, and hungry.”3 Take the lead if you feel ready, capable and if it’s an appropriate situation. Is there a client you can deliver? Is there a case where you have the background to make a strong contribution? Pick your opportunities but be “scrappy.”

But that may not be everyone’s personality. Later, Hamilton is frustrated with Aaron Burr, colleague and fellow attorney, over his reluctance to take a stand. “For once in your life, take a stand with pride, I don’t understand how you stand to the side.” Burr responds “I’ll wait here and see which way the wind will blow.” 4

Feeling Left Out?

Tensions or questions can arise when team members feel left out. In some cases, more experienced attorneys might have dominated the discussion without input from all others or acknowledgement as the project leader. In some situations, attorneys may feel that they should have been asked for input.

Aaron Burr did. He feels just as smart and useful as Hamilton. However, he is not invited to a crucial meeting with James Madison and Thomas Jefferson about Hamilton's plan for the U.S. financial system.  He is immediately frustrated with the process.

No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in
The room where it happens.5

The solution always lies in the process. It is acceptable to stop the process in order to establish roles, goals, and boundaries. Once everyone knows and understands their role, the process should proceed smoothly.

Nothing Without Washington Behind You

Everyone should look for a mentor and to be taken under someone's wing. However, other associates may perceive the relationship as favoritism or an unfair advantage. Hamilton faces the same criticism for being George Washington's “right-hand man.” Jefferson believes that Hamilton’s influence and power comes not from his talent, but from his relationship with Washington.   

Jefferson: Yeah, well someone ought to remind you.
Hamilton: What?
Jefferson: You’re nothing without Washington behind you.6

So what did Hamilton do in response? In this case, the best thing. He did nothing. Yes, nothing. He would not be distracted by outside “noise” and remained focused on his task of building a new nation. 

Being the Right-Hand Man (or Woman)

Often junior attorneys desire to have a larger or more significant role in a case, especially when working with a mentor. But disappointment follows when the assignment is not given.  What to do? Yell? Demand the assignment? Quit?

Hamilton wanted and felt he deserved a military assignment but Washington refused. Hamilton continued to press the issue (“I am not throwing away my shot!7) but Washington does not give in. Washington convinces Hamilton that the situation is so dire (“Outnumbered, outplanned!”8) that he needs Hamilton's unique skills by his side and not on the battlefield. Hamilton realizes that he must, for now, put a halt to his dreams of having a command of his own. “I’ll rise above my station, organize your information, ‘til we rise to the occasion of our new nation. Sir!”

Patience is the key. The desirable assignments will come along but show your value by being willing to work on anything. Also, supervising attorneys have a strategy and should be willing to explain why. Again, communication is the key. The attorney should find out why the assignment was not given and if the opportunity will arise in the future.

If you have not, give Hamilton a close listen or find an opportunity to see the show (good luck!). The song’s lyrics will make you think and reflect on your life and career. 

1 “Alexander Hamilton” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

2 Id.

3 “My Shot” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

4 “Non Stop” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

5 “The Room Where it Happens” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

6 “Cabinet Battle #2” Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

7 "Right Hand Man" Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

8 Id.