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November/December 2021

Managing: Three Steps to a More Fulfilling Practice Life

Thomas C. Grella

In the early years of employment at the firm I was destined to lead, my practice consisted of day in, day out residential refinances, with numerous closings every day. I was eager to be given the opportunity to expand my transactional practice and was disappointed when the firm hired another young lawyer for a transactional practice instead of asking me. By the mid-1990s however, my low-profit but steady closing schedule was substantial. One day, it finally happened. I was invited by firm leaders to a $3 lunch of one meat and two vegetables at the Battery Park Café in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, to discuss my practice area. Recognizing that increased profit from my almost commodity-level practice was unlikely, the partners finally decided I should expand my horizons. Though I knew this was what I had desired, I was accustomed to the seemingly safe and consistent practice I had built. This lunch was a key transitional point in my practice. As I write this column, despite continuing concerns about COVID-19 variants, the country seems to be opening back up. As you read this column, the end of 2021 is fast approaching. Perhaps it is a transitional time for us all—one leading back to some semblance of normalcy, but seemingly also providing an opportunity for personal growth.

A Vision to Behold

COVID-19 brought many new practices and procedures. It created new practice areas and demoted others. For some in my generation and older, decisions to retire have taken hold. Not yet ready to throw in the towel, for me the questions I ponder include, “Have I become what I wanted to become as a lawyer?”

Many of us ask ourselves if we are doing what we want to do, instead of whether we are who we want to be. My thought is that the practice of law is really more of a calling than a job. Yes, we work to create income for our families, but the law is supposed to be so much more, a place to find meaning in our life endeavors, connecting what we do to our underlying fundamental values.

Being a lawyer is about service and leadership. We serve our clients, our community and our world. We are given opportunities that others do not have to positively lead and influence in so many ways. If what you do on a day-to-day basis hinders you from achieving who you desire to become as a servant leader, perhaps a first step is to clearly define for yourself who you have always wanted to be, or become, and the actions needed to achieve that vision.

A Risk to Take

Immediately after that lunch, I was ecstatic that I was finally going to be allowed to pursue my original vision. Instead of volume-based impersonal transactions, the opportunity to finally establish client relationships that would extend beyond a single transaction was an exciting prospect. Even so, after six or more years with the firm, my existing practice had become comfortable. Leaving that lunch, I went back to my office and closed several refinance transactions that day. Each day, new similar matters came my way from lenders. I continued to take them on until one day the managing partner walked into my office to have a very pointed conversation, inquiring why I had resisted moving forward to implement a transition. Through this discussion, and the transition that finally transpired, I learned a few important lessons about success in achieving who you want to become as a lawyer.

First, it takes courage to both start and change. Ultimately you must move away from comfort zones as you develop new skills. There is risk in moving into the unknown. There can be a fear of failure. Being comfortable is nice, but progress and positive change requires risk taking.

Second, adding new practice areas or disciplines requires saying no to perceived opportunities that come along, even ones that might be helpful to an existing client or that support short-term financial goals. If an opportunity does not promote the vision, the fortitude to say no is crucial—it is a key discipline in achieving envisioned professional growth.

A Plan to Pursue

In my early career experience, I had a vision of what I wanted to become and said I was willing to transition but had difficulty moving from dream to reality. This was partly due to my reluctance to say no to the old and take a risk. It was also due to my lack of knowledge on how to say yes, both confidently and competently. Simply put, saying yes requires a well-developed plan and pursuing it to success. As I have considered my own experience, I have concluded that plans worth pursuing have common characteristics.

Systems. Every existing practice has systems. They might not be well thought out or lead to the right destination, but they exist nonetheless—even if a daily routine consists of checking emails, eating lunch and “putting out fires.” To achieve a new vision, there must be an understanding of current systems. In most cases, this understanding results in the need to replace some or all existing systems with new ones that will support vision. An effective transition helps identify current activities that are a part of existing systems that consume time but do not help achieve vision. It also includes systems to either learn how to say no or how to efficiently delegate to others in the organization. New systems must include both professional development, such as training and education to develop proficiency and expertise, and business development to create brand and promote client acquisition.

Organizational team. An effective plan will identify those individuals who will internally support the vision. It is possible these might be the same people who support an existing practice. It is also possible, however, that an effective plan may only be achievable with a new internal team or law firm. In any event, those who ultimately provide support must understand the new practice and agree to aid the change being undertaken. They must know and understand which opportunities to accept as supportive of the practice and to say no to, or delegate, opportunities that ultimately stymie progress.

Relationships. It seems to be human nature that we surround ourselves with those who have common interests and goals. In law practice this usually comes in the form of significant relation- ships that either support our practice or those who practice law in the same substantive area. Some of these relationships become so firm that they extend outside of our professional lives to true lasting friendships. With the need to build a new desired practice and only so much time in a day, new relationships might necessarily crowd out those that have been established over years. A serious desire to transition, however, will require seeking out others with expertise or experience in the disciplines that are required to be learned to achieve vision. Doing so might mean joining new professional associations and suspending activities in others. It might also mean seeking out new relationships with noted experts in the field being pursued, such as inviting an expert to lunch to “pick her brain.” For me, it clearly meant finding several people to informally mentor me to my desired professional development, growth and achievement.

As we come to the close of what seems to be a year of national transition, perhaps it’s time for each of us to consider whether we have a defined and satisfactory vision for our professional life—one that leads to who we want to become as a member of the legal profession.

Thomas C. Grella


Thomas C. Grella is a writer and speaker on practice management topics and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. He practices law with McGuire, Wood & Bissette, PA in Asheville, North Carolina, and is a former managing partner, having served in that position for 12 years. [email protected]

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