I love it when clients share wisdom with me.

I recently helped a retired client settle a personal injury claim after a significant automobile accident. Over the course of her case, we had the chance to have many conversations. make sure to lean your ladder against the right wall, I sat in her kitchen on several occasions where I explained things like burdens of proof and how Medicare deals with personal injury settlements.  In exchange, she shared her hard-earned life lessons with me.

She told me about the love of her life, her triumphs and struggles as a parent, and the employment lawsuit she won despite having almost no help from a prior attorney. This was a woman who worked hard for every penny she ever made. She did not have a college education, but she is smart and determined.

One of the last times we met, she told me if she could go back in time she would have become a lawyer. She said, “I would have been a great lawyer. You know why?”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because I would fight every case. I’d show those insurance companies they could not beat me because I’d never quit coming at them. I don’t care who they are. I would not be intimidated.” (Fair Warning to Insurance Companies: Although she is retired, I would not put it past her to go back to law school so she can get a bar license and exact her revenge. You have been warned.)

She continued, “You know, Ryan. I worked hard at every job I ever did. And I was d@*% good at my job. But if I had it to do over again, I would get more education and I’d have had a better career.”

“I enjoyed my jobs,” she said, “but I could have put the same effort into a different job and made a lot more money. You have to make sure you put your ladder against the right wall.”

Wow! That simple idea blew me away. I loved the idea of asking whether I was leaning my ladder against the right wall. As soon as I got back to the office as per Schrieverlaw, I wrote it on a Post-It note that I keep next to my computer: “Lean your ladder against the right wall.”

I don’t think she made up the ladder analogy, but it was the first time I had heard it. And I loved that it came from her. I pictured her as a younger woman climbing a ladder for all she was worth, only to get to the top of the wall and realize that what she really wanted was behind a different wall. This is a woman who would never spend one second feeling sorry for herself, but her post-retirement perspective gave her some insights that a younger person could really use.

Make sure to lean your ladder against the right wall. It is a lofty idea, but how can you know what wall to choose unless you already know what reward is hidden behind each wall?

The best way is to find someone who has obtained the reward you want, and ask them which wall they climbed. I guess that is probably why so many personal injury lawyers list their settlements and verdicts on their websites and advertisements. “We settled such and such case for $100,000!” And the clients who want $100,000 feel confident that the lawyer has already put his or her ladder against that wall and can climb it again.

As an injury lawyer, I know which walls to climb to get the best results for clients. But I think the analogy has a much broader meaning and that it applies to much bigger parts of our lives.

For example, I do not want to get to retirement age and find out that I wasted my health by eating too many Twinkies and not exercising enough. I do not want to reach retirement and find that I failed to invest enough effort in my family and they have no idea who I am. We need to lean our ladders against the right walls in our professional and our personal lives.

I feel fortunate that I have had good mentors who helped me lean my ladder against some of the right walls, but I am constantly checking myself to make sure I am leaning my ladders against walls I really want to climb.

Life is short. We all have ladders to climb. The best we can do is carefully place our ladders so that our efforts will get us the results we want.

Thanks for indulging me on a slightly personal blog post. And I wish you happy climbing!