Today’s legal leaders need to possess a number of
skills that they don’t teach in law school. One of
these is “grit.” Angela Duckworth, a professor at the
University of Pennsylvania, defines grit as “passion
and perseverance for long-term goals.” 1
In essence, grit enables highly successful
people to stay motivated to succeed over long
periods of time, despite setbacks and hardship.
If you knock a gritty person down, they just get
right back up again.
As one study puts it: 2
“Grit entails working strenuously toward chal-
lenges, maintaining effort and interest over years
despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.
The gritty individual approaches achievement as a
marathon; his or her advantage is stamina. While
boredom signals to others that it is time to change
Grit is not the same thing as talent, which is how
quickly you can improve upon a skill. Grit enables
talent to blossom by driving the person to invest
the time and effort needed to achieve success.
According to Duckworth, moving from talent
to achievement can be summarised in two simple
talent × effort = skill
skill × effort = achievement
Notice how effort counts both in acquiring skill
and in achieving something substantive with that
skill. As Duckworth notes: 4
“What this theory says is that when you consider
individuals in identical circumstances, what
each achieves depends on just two things, talent
and effort. Talent — how fast we improve in skill
— absolutely matters. But effort factors into the
calculations twice, not once. Effort builds skills. At
Our culture has a tendency to focus on talent
and intelligence over grit. However, when the chips
are down and you are in the middle of a crisis, you
definitely want to be surrounded by gritty people.
Some of the best lawyers out there achieved
what they have achieved because they found ways
to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book, David and
Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling
Giants, recounts the story of the renowned litigator,
David Boies, who has struggled with dyslexia. 5 As
Gladwell has noted6:
“Here we have one of the greatest lawyers in the
country, and he is profoundly dyslexic. He reads
basically one book a year. He finds reading difficult
and painful. Think about that for a moment, he’s a
lawyer! He’s in a profession that has reading at its
absolute core. When I talked to him, I said, ‘How
did you become such a successful lawyer in spite of
this disability?’ And he said, ‘not in spite, I became
a successful lawyer because of this so-called disability.’ … He learned how to listen, and he also
developed an extraordinary memory. So he would
sit in school, and he didn’t take notes, he sat and
listened to the teacher and remembered everything
that was said.”
One of the grittiest, and most successful
lawyers I know personally is my mentee, Haben
Girma, a hugely successful disability rights activist and the first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard
Law School. She has overcome a lifetime of
challenges to succeed and, indeed, thrive despite
her disability. Her hobbies include surfing and
ballroom dancing. 7
While grit is related to self-control and conscientiousness, it is not the same thing. A conscientious
and self-controlled person may be able to perform
a short-term objective (e.g., a task at work), but
buckle in the face of a challenging obstacle that
stands in the way of a long-term objective.
Grit can, in fact, be measured. Duckworth has
developed a “Grit Scale” that will determine the
level of grittiness in a person, based on their agreement or disagreement (ranging from “very much
like me” to “not like me at all”). You can take the
Grit Scale test yourself at www.angeladuckworth.
While you may decide to spare your team members from actually taking this test, there is value in
keeping an eye out for grittiness levels in prospective candidates. Grit counts toward success.
The above has been adapted with the kind permission of Globe Law and Business from Bjarne’s
book, Building an Outstanding Legal Team: Battle-Tested Strategies from a General Counsel (see:
www.globelawandbusiness.com/OLT/ for more
Have a comment on this
article? Visit ACC’s blog at
Bjarne P. Tellmann
SVP & GENERAL COUNSEL
1 See https://en.wikipedia.org/
accessed 24 August 2016.
2 Angela L Duckworth,
Michael D Matthews,
and Dennis R Kelly, Grit:
Perseverance and Passion
for Long-Term Goals, 10
January 2007, p1087
(available at www.dropbox.
pdf?dl=0/ ; accessed 24
3 Angela Duckworth, Grit:
The Power of Passion and
Perseverance, Scribner (an
imprint of Simon & Schuster
Inc), 2016, p41.
4 Ibid, p42.
5 David and Goliath:
Underdogs, Misfits and the
Art of Battling Giants, by
Malcolm Gladwell, Little and
Brown and Company, 2013.
6 See: www.marketplace.
7 Find out more about Haben
The Importance of Grit
22 ASSOCIATION OF CORPORATE COUNSEL
voices bjarne p. tellmann