1-2. Joe Flom is the last living named partner of one of the most prestigious law firms in New York, “Skadden, Arps.” Flom grew up in a Jewish family during the depression, did well in school, and eventually got into Harvard law without a college degree, and graduated as one of the very top in his class. When it came time to search for a job, he felt he didn’t fit in at the major New York firms and joined a small group of men who were starting their own firm. Today, that law firm, Skadden, Arps, earns over $1 billion a year.
Here is yet another “success story” presented for the reader to scrutinize. Once again we are being called upon to question this story of a self-made man who, against the odds, succeeded in a field in which he was not welcome and then made a name for himself anyway.
3. Just like all of the success stories we’ve heard so far, Flom is a product of his environment. He had talent, ambition, intelligence; but we have learned that this is not enough. Flom was Jewish: to illustrate the importance of this point, Gladwell examines the lives and career of some of Flom’s other Jewish peers. They all experienced something similar: they didn’t fit in with the big firms of the day. They faced discrimination because of their faith. They all faced very similar setbacks: though they were qualified, though they were great lawyers, they were not hired.
Gladwell begins his discussion of how heritage, cultural identity, and social systems of advantage and disadvantage play a role in individual success. He seems to be suggesting that Flom’s Jewishness had an impact on his success; but, the reader should note, his faith seemed to be a distinct disadvantage—he was discriminated against. Isn’t his faith one of the many obstacles he had to overcome? Or did it actually give him a kind of hidden advantage?
4. The old Wall Street firms that didn’t hire people like Joe Flom did a very specific kind of work. They disdained litigation and thought corporate takeovers were uncivilized, so they avoided accepting cases that involved those things. They mostly handled legal filing and taxes for big corporate entities, and this was what was considered “dignified” legal work. But in the 1950s and 60s, corporate takeovers became more commonplace, and the only lawyers that corporate investors could get to do this work for them were lawyers like Joe Flom—lawyers with talent who had been pushed out of the major firms and were forced to take whatever work they could get.
A complicated scene begins to unfold. Because of cultural prejudice against Jewish lawyers, these lawyers were pushed into a certain sector of the legal profession in New York. They were forced to do the kind of work that other firms didn’t like to do. This, Gladwell will show, eventually made them perfectly positioned for huge success.
Between 1970 and 1980 there was a massive boom in the number of mergers and acquisitions, and these deals were worth millions and millions of dollars. Now all law firms wanted to do this kind of work—but only a few law firms had had enough practice to be experts in these matters. These firms were, by-and-large, the Jewish firms full of lawyers who had been kept out of the old-world firms. Adversity turned into opportunity.
All of the sudden, the skills in litigation that Jewish lawyers had been forced to acquire because of their faith became some of the most desirable skills in the profession. Gladwell is not saying that Jewish lawyers in new york had it easy—he merely means to suggest that cultural disadvantage happened, in this case, to become an advantage.
5-7. Another important point is that the Joe Flom was a Jewish lawyer in New York when it was the perfect time to be a Jewish lawyer in New York. There is such a thing, argues Gladwell, as being “demographically unlucky.” If you became old enough to enter the work force at the very beginning of the Great Depression, you were demographically unlucky. Joe Flom’s success can be attributed (at least in part) to this kind of demographic logic. In the 1930s, because of the hardships of the Great Depression, people stopped having children. The result was a small generation (of which Flom was a part.) He enjoyed smaller class sizes, more attention, and less competition throughout school. For a lawyer, being born in the 1930s was an almost magical kind of advantage.
We are already familiar with how important timing and historical context are to any successful individual. Flom was born into a small generation, in a year that would put him at his professional peak right around the time there would be a corporate takeover boom in New York. This is utterly arbitrary good luck—but we can see that it played a formative role in ensuring Flom’s success.
8-10. Gladwell then moves on to talk about how Lawyers like Flom benefitted from, of all things, the New York garment industry. He tells a story common to many New York garment workers: a young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Borgenicht, with experience in clothing and manufacturing, move to New York from Europe in search of a better life. They begin selling child’s aprons after they notice there don’t seem to be many for sale, and have a great deal of success. They worked long exhausting hours, but eventually made enough money to buy a factory and hire employees. It was an exhausting life, but Mr. Borgenicht was his own boss, doing engaging, complicated work, and being rewarded for his efforts. In other words, the work was meaningful.
Gladwell continues to build on the idea that, when it comes to success, it matters where we come from. The garment industry in New York, was, Gladwell argues, characterized by meaningful work. Garment workers lived in a culture where effort was met with appropriate reward, and creativity and flexibility were essential. It’s becoming clear that the value that their culture placed on work had a strong influence on the families and children of these garment workers.
11. In the 1980s, sociologists studied the fates of children of couples like the Borgenichts. Overwhelmingly, researchers saw the children of these families becoming educated professionals. Gladwell says that “Jewish doctors and lawyers did not become professionals in spite of their humble origins. They became professionals because of their humble origins.” Children of Jewish garment workers learned growing up that persuasion, initiative, and hard work lead to success. “The garment industry was boot camp for the professions.” And Joe Flom’s father sewed shoulder pads for women’s dresses.
In the case of Jewish professionals from New york, “humble origins” were not an obstacle but an advantage. This goes directly against our intuitive sense of Joe Flom’s success story—that he heroically overcame the shackles of his past in order to become successful. Growing up in the 1930s with parents who were garment workers gave a child an advantage (much the same way that growing up with wealthy parents gives a child an advantage today).
12. Gladwell gives us an overview of what he has just argued. Once again, a bevy of things came together to help ensure Joe Flom’s success. He was presented with opportunities, his timing was perfect, and his cultural heritage had taught him important lessons about how to succeed in this culture, as was the case with many other Jewish lawyers in New York. “Their world—their culture and generation and family history—gave them the greatest of opportunities.
The reader should take time to reflect on the sheer number of advantages Joe Flom enjoyed that were beyond his direct control. This is yet another case where timing, background, and sheer luck all play a key role in determining opportunity and success.