Chapter 5 Summary

The Three Lessons of Joe Flom

This chapter begins with the background and history of Joe Flom, who is a lawyer at one of the most successful law firms in the nation. To explain elements of Flom’s success that might not be as obvious, Gladwell also describes another successful Jewish lawyer—Alexander Bickel. These lawyers have similar stories: they were children of hard-working Jewish immigrants who came into their lawyer status in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when most successful law firms were not hiring Jewish lawyers. Because of this, many had to start firms on their own and take work other firms would not accept. One such type of work dealt with the dismantling of businesses—corporate takeovers. This work often went to Jewish law firms, and with expanding business and weakened regulations in the 1970s, corporate takeovers became much more common. Because the Jewish firms already had a reputation for doing that kind of work, they got even more.

The first lesson of Joe Flom is that what started as a disadvantage—being Jewish and receiving work that no other law firms wanted—in the end turned out to be a stepping-stone for success. The second lesson of Joe Flom centers on when exactly Flom was born and how that played a role in his success. During the Great Depression, birth rates dropped to record lows. This means that any children born during that time had certain advantages—smaller class sizes, greater acceptance rates to universities, and more complete access to resources that were developed during the booming 1920s. Also, because there were fewer people available to take jobs, the jobs paid better and the choices were more diverse. Because of this, Joe Flom and many of his colleagues had advantages merely from being born during the Great Depression.

Gladwell describes the third lesson of Joe Flom by telling the story of Louis and Regina Borgenicht, Jewish immigrants who came to America looking for the American dream. They tried selling various wares and finally found success selling clothing. That was not coincidental; many Jewish immigrants were trained in making clothing and brought those skills to America right when the population and technology were exploding in such a way that clothing was in high demand. Right then in history, being able to make clothing was one of the most profitable things you could do. As a result, the Borgenichts were successful. They were in the right place at the right time with the right skills for success. Gladwell compares this to Flom—he entered the lawyering arena right when the demand for his skill set was needed. This helped him to succeed. Behind Joe Flom’s success—and that of many others like him—lies a heritage that gave him unique opportunities and a birth date during an advantageous historical time. When factoring in what makes people successful, these elements cannot be ignored.