How humility is your best asset in business

Over the years, many of the young lawyers I’ve come in contact with – both as a teacher and as an employer- ask me what it takes to be a top lawyer. The answer that I give is never one they expect: no matter how high up the ladder you are, it pays to keep your ego in check. Whether you are a top lawyer, a top athlete, or at the top of the country, humility is your best asset.

How is humility good for business?

A few years ago I consulted with a man with a very difficult immigration case. Nothing new about that. But what happened was very educational to me as an attorney.

I asked all of my questions and reviewed his papers. He kept pointing to a specific section of one page. It was a commonly generated notice of action from the Immigration Service.

I responded that I have seen this language thousands of times. So I did not bother to read the thing word for word. Rather I jumped for law books to support my initial conclusions about how to resolve the case.

Finally, when I reentered my office, I sat down again at my desk and looked at the paper, which was still in the center of my desk.  The man sat silently as I finally read the document. And wouldn’t you know it?  There were some sentences in there that I had never seen before, important stuff that might help solve his problem.

I was so caught up in analysis that I glossed over the diagnosis.

In other words, ego got in the way.

Luckily, I returned to the important lesson that I had learned from my days of training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which I often apply to Immigration Law:

“What’s the key to ground fighting? What should I focus on? The answer, when it comes from Zé or Murilo, is enlightening: humility.

Always assume that your opponent is better than you, that he knows more – you have to work harder in training and learn more. You know only 5 percent of what there is to know. Fight your own pride and ego. Be open-minded and always learning new techniques, new things from anyone.”

Don’t let your success go to your head

While many of this learn this from our parents and teachers, and some of us learn it from a martial art, humility is not intrinsic to American culture. We love to applaud larger than life celebrities, and revel in “bigger is better”. It can be easy to lose control of our egos in that landscape, especially if you are good at what you do, and have been lucky enough to experience a lot of success.

As of today I have been honored by Best Lawyers for 13 years in a row, and have won Lawyer of The Year twice. But if I spent every work day thinking I knew everything already I would miss out on important information all the time. Instead, I want to remember that I only know 5 percent of what there is to know, because just like ground fighting, Immigration Law is a never-ending series of combinations and confusing twists. And you have to always focus on humility.

That day in my office,  I learned the answer to that fellow’s problem not by reading it in a statute or sharing information with my colleagues, although those elements are crucial as well.  The answer was staring me right in the face.

As a leading business person in any field, from the top of our country, to a top athlete, it is easy to let your ego get in the way. You are surrounded by success, and often the power that comes with it. But it is easier to climb to the top then it is to maintain a position there. Climbing to the top of any field takes guts, courage and hard work. But staying there requires the humility to constantly question what you think you know, and be open to seeing your own mistakes, and fixing them before they define you.

(Quotation above from A Fighter’s Heart by Sam Sheridan)

Written by: Harlan York

Immigration Attorney Harlan York is Former Chair, Immigration Section, NJ State Bar Association and Former Co-Chair, NY State Bar Association CFLS Immigration Committee. Mr. York appeared on National Television on CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose and Primer Impacto on Univision, as well as Telemundo, NBC, and PBS. He was honored as First Ever Immigration Lawyer of The Year in NJ by Best Lawyers.

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