Robert L. McKenna III’s top 5 ‘What I know now that I wish I’d known then’ life tips

  (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Attorney Robert L. McKenna III’s wheelhouse is multijurisdictional defense representation for professional, general, and product liability cases. As a founding partner at the California-based legal firm Kjar, McKenna & Stockalper LLP, it’s safe to say he knows more than a thing or two about the law. McKenna is also a single dad who raised two kids pretty much on his own while working full time (his proudest achievement). 

McKenna takes his dual roles quite seriously. Himself? A little less so. 

Over the course of McKenna’s storied career, he’s won and lost, made good decisions and bad (although hopefully, more good than bad), and taken time to appreciate the rewards of hard work and fellowship. Outside of work, he’s tried to impart a philosophy to his kids that’s one part carpe diem (seize the day), one part golden rule, and one part self-determination. As important as winning at trial may be, Robert McKenna understands that in the grander scheme of things, it’s the process rather than the outcome that ultimately leads to fulfillment. Here are five top tips for success he’s learned so far.

    1. Trust Your Instincts

When we’re younger, many of us have a tendency to doubt the soundness of our judgment. It’s not uncommon to wonder if others with more experience might have better answers to life’s important questions, and that can make us afraid to put our ideas forward, especially if those ideas are contrary to the status quo. As a result, we wind up second guessing ourselves but Robert McKenna says when faced with a challenge, though we may not be able to foresee the final outcome of things we set in motion, experience has taught him to go with his gut — even when others disagree. 

Case in point? Through his business connections, Robert McKenna was privy to some early warning signs that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to have a major impact on the world economy and the workplace. When McKenna’s source (a friend who worked for a global trading concern heavily invested in biotech) passed along intel that the virologists and immunologists with whom he dealt were treating coronavirus as an imminent and potentially devastating threat, McKenna’s instincts kicked in. 

Prior to lockdown, McKenna was already strategizing a functional hybrid work model for his team as a contingency plan should it become necessary to halt office operations. On or about February 10, 2020, McKenna sent an email to his partners and office manager apprising them of his concerns. 

I told them, “Hey, I don’t mean to overreact, but this might turn into something that will require us to shut the office down,” he recalls ruefully. “I think we should have a plan just in case, because I would hate to lose two to three weeks of work… That could be devastating.”

While his worries were met with initial skepticism, McKenna’s predictive precautions proved to be right on the money. Thanks to his insistence on trusting his instincts and taking preemptive action, by the time a national emergency was eventually declared, Kjar, McKenna & Stockalper was well ahead of the curve.

    2. Be Open to Constructive Criticism

A lawyer’s first priority is to do their utmost to ensure their clients’ best interests are protected. A good attorney invests the time and resources necessary to present the most persuasive case possible. Being a parent is much the same. Every day is filled with decisions, big and small, that can impact the trajectory of your children’s lives and shape their future. Even for the most thoughtful, informed, and well-prepared lawyer or parent can make a misstep, however, although things might not always turn out as you hope, Robert McKenna believes every setback, whether personal or professional, is an opportunity for a valuable lesson — if you’re willing to learn from your mistakes.

When a legal team loses a case, it doesn’t mean they weren’t trying hard or putting in the work; it simply means the opposing side made a more convincing argument. When a court decision doesn’t go in their favor, smart lawyers don’t simply bemoan the verdict, they go back and poll the jury to find out where they went wrong. Eating humble pie may not be easy but if you take the time to truly digest the feedback, McKenna says it’s a meal that will help you to mount stronger cases in the future. 

“In my career… I’ve learned far more from my trial losses than I’ve ever [gained] from my victories,” McKenna says. “And especially early on, you learn sort of what works and what doesn’t work.” 

McKenna’s found out the hard way that as a lawyer, even your best intuitive strategy can go awry. “You talk to jurors afterwards, and you can find there are things that you did that not only [didn’t] resonate with them, they…questioned why that was the case… You’re shocked to hear these [revelations]. And it’s a tough time because you’ve just been told by 12 people that they don’t agree with you… they don’t agree with your client… they don’t agree with their case… They think you’re wrong, and…the other side’s right.”

While he grants the judicial system is adversarial by nature — someone’s going to win and someone’s going to lose — McKenna owns it takes a lot for any lawyer, himself included, to ask the 12 people who’ve just scuttled your case what you, your experts, your witnesses, and your clients could have done to have made your arguments more convincing. No matter how upset you are for “coming up short,” McKenna stresses that being willing to listen and truly hear what a jury is telling you is imperative to improving future outcomes.

    3. Find Pleasure in Doing, Not Winning

Robert McKenna believes that Americans especially, and perhaps lawyers in particular, define everything they do in terms of winning and losing, however, where extracurricular activities are concerned, he cautions that this kind of mindset can be counterintuitive. It’s a theory he adopted after hearing an anecdote about one of his early heroes, 20th century author/satirist/philosopher Kurt Vonnegut. 

McKenna recounts that when Kurt Vonnegut was a young man, an older fellow asked him, “What do you do?” Vonnegut’s answer was, “I don’t really do anything well,” to which the elder gentleman replied, “So what? You don’t need to do anything well… just do what you want to do.” 

The idea of engaging in an activity for the pleasure it brings, rather than striving to be the best at it — and stressing out if you’re not — resonated with McKenna. “You don't need to be good at any of the things that you like doing,” McKenna explains. “You want to play soccer on the weekends… you could be the worst soccer player. The point is you don’t need to be the best. You don’t need to be good. You don’t even need to be proficient in the… extracurricular things you do. You could be the absolute worst… but there is an intrinsic joy in just doing the things [you enjoy for their own sake.]” 

McKenna understands why people who aren’t particularly adept give up pastimes they enjoy, but to him, they’re missing the point. He says a lot of people he’s spoken with who’ve stopped doing something they loved but weren’t particularly good at think, Why should I do something I suck at? It just makes me feel worse. McKenna says the goal shouldn’t necessarily be about improving their performance, but rather, to simply participate and be enriched by the experience. 

As Vonnegut himself so sagely said, “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories.”

    4. Practice Kindness and Empathy

If Robert McKenna were afforded the opportunity to impart one piece of consolation to his twentysomething self it would be this: “Whatever you think your most burning personal or professional crisis may be will pass.” He notes things you thought were “incredibly important and non-negotiable in your teens and early twenties are far more nuanced and subjective than you could ever believe at the time.” 

Perhaps the most important lesson he’s learned is to try to be more empathetic and understanding toward others. “You don’t really know what [someone is] going through at any given point in time, so don’t immediately assume the worst,” he explains. 

People can appear hostile or aloof for any number of reasons. There’s every chance their behavior has nothing to do with you. You might simply have caught them in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“It is a difficult and humbling thing to think that every other human being on this planet has just as rich an internal life as you do… They have the same strange… and scattered thoughts and feelings and emotions…that run just as deep and are just as meaningful to them as yours are to you. It’s hard to get your head around that when you just look at how many people you interact with every day.” 

    5. Pursue Purpose and Happiness Will Follow

Robert McKenna says the fundamental key to fulfillment comes in understanding that the universe is indifferent to our personal happiness or lack thereof. “The universe [doesn’t] have a personal investment in your happiness and your joy,” he asserts. “You need to invest in that. You need to decide what happiness and joy is.”

The principle that you, and you alone, control how you respond to the world is at the core of the philosophical teachings of Viktor Emil Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and author who devoted his life to “studying, understanding, and promoting the concept of ‘meaning.’”

Frankl asserted a life without purpose was a life without substance. He viewed the pursuit of happiness in the form of pure hedonism as shallow and unfulfilling. He went on to say that while people who’ve found purpose in life may still have to work hard to achieve their goals, in addition to the personal satisfaction such work brings them, in having purpose they will also find happiness and meaning. 

It’s a philosophy that Robert McKenna has taken to heart and tries to live every day. He knows he’s fortunate. While he’s not happy every minute of every day, his life is filled with meaning and purpose and joy. Of course, he’s worked hard to make it so. “If you have joy, you have meaning and you have purpose, so you’re two-thirds of the way there,” he says. And the other third? That’s just doing things you love… and loving the things you do.

This article was written in cooperation with Hannah madison