I have known Gene for about eight years now, and I admire and respect him professionally. More importantly, I have high regard for him personally. Both his personal and professional strengths were on full display during his visit to Mississippi. In no particular order, here were the main points I took away from his talk.
Point #1: Expect the unexpected. "I never intended to practice law," Theroux explained, "even after I decided to go to law school." In fact, he only decided to go to law school after working on the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson campaigns in 1960 and 1964. His undergraduate degree in art from the Pratt Institute, he concluded, might need supplementing with more practical skills, so he attended law school at Georgetown.
Point #2: Life is an adventure to be savored. Listening to Theroux talk is like learning history one anecdote at a time. He was involved in the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He represented Ringling Brothers in its efforts to obtain circus acts from the People's Republic of China. He has represented fortune 500 companies such as PepsiCo and Wrigley in their efforts to gain market access to the PRC. He was retained by the PRC as counsel for one of the most important sovereign immunity cases of the twentieth century. He lived in India for four years while working for Baker & McKenzie. In other words, he has done a lot of fun and rewarding things during his years in practice. "What's important," Theroux told another group of (high school) students during his visit to Mississippi, "is to follow your bliss--to figure out what you enjoy" and work those interests into your career in some way.
By following his own advice and his own muse, and by combining his personal and professional interests, Theroux has carved a career path that is different from any other international lawyer I know--and I am an international lawyer myself, so I know have seen quite a few international career paths.
Point #3: Nice manners pay off. Theroux recounted that much of his success "has come from doing what my parents taught me: to say 'please' and 'thank you' and to write thank you notes to people." He recounted how he once dated a daughter of U.S. Representative T. Hale Boggs of Louisiana, and he became friends with Rep. Boggs himself. It was Boggs who in 1972 invited Theroux to participate in a trip to the PRC by Boggs and then-Rep. Gerald Ford, after President Nixon's visit to the PRC earlier that year had become public knowledge.
I would add that the equation is probably more along the lines of "nice manners plus a good brain pay off," but perhaps that's obvious.
Point #4: Develop contacts for the right reasons and it will pay off. Related to the subject of good manners was Theroux's admonition not to "pursue personal relationships with people for the wrong reasons." Too often, he noted, people are more interested in developing personal relationships based on whether the relationship might be politically or personally profitable. But Theroux emphasized that you never know what relationships might be beneficial professionally, and what ones might not be, so he suggested not to think in those terms. Instead, he advised that relationships should be developed for their own sake--as acquaintances and friendships to be enjoyed and maintained throughout the years. And when people you are genuinely interested in and concerned with come into positions of influence, who would they rather deal with: friends, or people who see them only as a contact? Rhetorical question, of course.
I suppose that in this age of overt contacts and connections, Theroux's approach might sound quaint. But it's also effective. Not only is Theroux universally well-regarded by other lawyers in Baker & McKenzie (the associates there loved him when I worked there, since he always expressed genuine interest in people), but he also firmly believes that much of his success over time has come from personal relationships that he fostered for their own sake, and not just for the sake of getting ahead.
This is related in some sense to many stories Theroux told during his visit about how predictions by him and others about the future of the PRC and other matters proved incorrect. That is, when you strategize based on the best information available, you are often dead wrong. So in developing your personal network of relationships, do it for its own sake--doing it "strategically" is likely to fail.
Point #5: So what does all of the above have to do with the "globalization of law"? The thrust of Theroux's talk was to illustrate, by his own example, how you can carve a career path that you like and are proud of, even if you don't know exactly what you want to do or where it might lead you. He noted that international opportunities have grown enormously, but his point was that there are, quite literally, as many career paths as there are lawyers. That's my long-winded way of saying that what Theroux had to say at MCSOL was ultimately broader than globalization or international matters, and thus more relevant to the students as a whole.
And that was reflected in the reaction of MCSOL students to his visit. One student called him "a kind, gentle spirit," which he most certainly is. Another characterized Theroux as "very cool, unassuming, interesting, etc. Absolutely the type of lawyer I'd like to be." That's the sort of thing I'd like carved on my tombstone. A third said it was inspiring to "hear of someone who found something they love by 'doing it their own way.' "
Perhaps those student comments are the greatest take-aways from Gene's visit to MCSOL, namely--
- That when you are a nice person, it shows through. When you are not, that usually shows through too. So be nice.
- That marching to your own beat is cool, because it's really hard to do, and very brave to boot. It's easier to be a worker bee who does things the way people tell you they should be done, but "easier" does not mean "better."
- That you can be successful doing your own thing, and be an inspiration to others.
And, I should add, if we had more lawyers like Theroux, the legal profession (and society in general) would be a lot better off.