The legal industry is a big ego game. Whether you practice in construction, real estate, bankruptcy, litigation or family law, egos are everywhere. Clients want what they want, opposing parties are convinced they’re right, opposing counsel wants to best you, and of course, you want to win your cases, get your deals done and grow your practice.

All of this ego can make for tension and stress. However, in my years of experience interviewing attorneys and writing about law, I can happily attest that the majority of lawyers I’ve met are pleasant individuals who don’t take themselves too seriously. Nonetheless, everyone gets caught up in conflict from time to time, especially in an industry that encourages winning above all else. This pressure extends to marketing and business development, where attorneys may feel like they are losing if they don’t devote themselves to what feels like a second career: promoting themselves.

Detaching from the ego doesn’t mean becoming lazy and dropping all effort altogether. Rather, it entails developing awareness of what the ego is and where it tends to become problematic by creating stress. Not letting it run the show and developing more ease around your legal practice and your promotional efforts will make you, in the long run, a better attorney.

This may sound esoteric, or even wishy-washy, but examining how your ego plays into your career trajectory can do wonders for your mental health, your longevity, your relationships and thus, your book of business.

What is the ego?

Pretty much everyone you meet is walking around with a defined sense of themselves. This self is comprised of lots of mental constructs, which are stories that people tell themselves about who they think they are. There are lots of labels that come with this sense of differentiation — I’m a mom, I’m a lawyer, I’m successful (or trying to be), I’m intelligent (or an imposter), I’m good-looking or athletic or artistic. Or too fat, unworthy, not successful enough. Ego encompasses both arrogance and low self-worth.

These stories include whatever has happened in the past, such as upbringing, religion, ethnicity, the challenges we’ve overcome and the lessons we’ve learned from them. All of these past experiences and ways we define ourselves comprise a vast edifice that we come to identify as ourselves. This vast matrix is the ego, and it’s multi-faceted and complex and sometimes so deep that there are elements of it we aren’t even aware of, like an iceberg.

Everyone has an ego. It’s like the costume that we wear in the play of life — as Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage.” But sometimes we become so invested in our egos that it can cause problems.

We all know what it’s like to work with an egotistical colleague, or face stubborn opposing counsel, or manage a client who insists on their way even when they don’t understand the law. Perhaps we even have personal relationships where we can see how a loved one’s ego impedes their ability to relate to us.

It’s trickier to see it in ourselves — how our own desire to win, succeed, gain wealth or become famous actually makes us feel constricted, angry, jealous and greedy inside. It can be hard to see how feeding our own egos makes us feel pain. Where we think we will find some kind of happiness somewhere down the road in an imaginary future when we’ve won, in reality, we are living with internal knots all the time.

Isn’t ego good for marketing?

At first glance, marketing is nothing but an exercise in ego. After all, you’re trying to attract business by telling the story about your successes and skills.

But actually, there’s a difference between telling the story about a skilled and successful attorney who will help potential clients, and becoming so wrapped up in the marketing that it begins to impede on your mental well-being.

It may be easier to illustrate the difference by looking at how young people try to become influencers on social media. If you are a young person who begins creating content on social media, you may begin your endeavors full of inspiration and creative ideas. You might be willing to stay awake all night editing videos because you are learning and because you love it. But ego begins to creep in when you start to focus more on the likes and followers you get. The project goes from being a labor of love that creates fulfillment to one that becomes stressful. You begin to tailor your content to what you think will get you more clicks and views. Burnout often ensues.

This paradigm applies to attorneys and their marketing efforts as well. When an attorney loves what they do, has passion for it, and genuinely cares about their clients and the justice system overall, this passion translates to the quality of their work. Then, telling stories about their work becomes not about their ego, but about the aspects of the work that they care about. On the other hand, when attorneys are coming from the ego, the message quickly becomes pushy and salesy.

Everyone has some degree of intuition, and most people will be able to tell the difference.

Rankings are a slippery slope.

At Jaffe, we understand the importance of awards and rankings for attorney and law firm marketing. Just as people check reviews before they go to a restaurant, potential clients appreciate that rankings and awards do much of the heavy lifting of due diligence for them, depending on the credibility of the organization doing the accolading.

You might wonder, what are awards if not about ego?

Awards and rankings are races. They are “American Ninja Warrior” where you have to slug it out in the mud and struggle to get up a ladder, beating out all the equally ambitious, driven, sleep-deprived attorneys who are operating in your market. If your sense of self-worth is tied up in winning awards, you will never find peace.

Rankings and awards are valuable, and all attorneys should submit for them. But after you, or your marketing department or outside PR agency, hit “send,” it’s best to let it go and relax. The value of touching grass (which sounds like Gen Z slang, but I mean literally making physical contact with some grass outside in the sunshine) has sharply diminished in recent years, but the benefits are invaluable

Ambition has its price

Success is costly in the legal industry. Many attorneys sacrifice their evenings, weekends, vacations and family time for their careers. When everyone else in your market is doing it, you feel like you have to do it, too, to catch up or stay ahead. While many attorneys are ready for these sacrifices, they may not realize the true price of trying to be top dog: mental health and sanity.

I write a lot of rankings submissions at Jaffe. I love writing, but my favorite part of my job is interviewing attorneys. I enjoy learning about law, but I have unexpectedly found wisdom in conversations with lawyers on a wide range of subjects. Many awards submissions ask about advice for younger people, and one thing I’ve heard again and again from older attorneys, often interviewing them for lifetime achievement awards, is that when you are gazing upon the end of your life, no one will really care about the work you did. Case law will be overturned or legislated out of existence, there will always be bigger verdicts and new cases that people will talk about. However great your legal practice, within a decade or two of retirement or death, your name will be forgotten. This might be a blow to the ego, but is a sobering truth.

Maybe if you aren’t ready to let go of your thirst for success and fortune, perhaps these words of wisdom from people who have arrived at the end of their careers can remind us about why we are doing what we are doing. Not to feed our egos, but to make a difference in people’s lives, or because we are insatiably curious, or even because we love arguing. When ego is not the driving force behind our work, it comes through as excellence, and that is a good story to tell.

If you need help telling your story, reach out to me, Ada Kase, at ajkase@jaffepr.com.