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May 01, 2022

Managing Relationships: Timeless Tips for Young and Old

Thomas C. Grella
Being self-aware enough to effectively manage ambition and express gratitude is a helpful way for a lawyer to achieve satisfaction.

Being self-aware enough to effectively manage ambition and express gratitude is a helpful way for a lawyer to achieve satisfaction.

fizkes / Getty Images

I have  heard many stereotypes applied to the Millennial generation. I’ve also written about the need for my generation, and those after, to try and understand those in the younger generation, and the benefits to be achieved in doing so. At this point, given the change that COVID-19 has caused in the way all generations think and act, I wonder about the benefits to be achieved in calling out a single group of persons based on the year they were born. My observation is that the circumstances of a global emergency have influenced present decision making and conduct for those of all generations. I originally thought about giving advice to Millennials in this issue’s column, but I now submit a few thoughts on relationship management for the benefit of all generations. I do, however, hope that these experiences of a former member of the Young Lawyers Division will be of greatest benefit to members of the youngest generations (perhaps simply because they have, on average, more time for thoughtful decision making).

Learn to earn

On a recent professional association Zoom meeting, a few younger-generation lawyers were suggesting that leaders of the bar had not, in their view, provided sufficient opportunities of service for younger lawyers. One older lawyer on the call, a contemporary of mine, explained that he believed that younger lawyers were being given the opportunity to join and serve but they needed to earn their way up the leadership ladder. All of us should expect to be heard and appreciated by those in leadership of our firms and the other organizations we are involved in. At the same time, I believe that it is our selfless, dedicated service to clients, the firm, the profession and the community that is the key to recognition and advancement. Ambition to advance is certainly not a bad thing to have but it needs to be managed, respecting the generational experiences of those who lead. Over the years, I’ve come to believe a few truths, as I’ve observed myself and others being overly ambitious to advance in professional life:

  1. Unhealthy external competitiveness. In life we tend to compete both within ourselves and externally with others. Resist the temptation to compare yourself to others, especially those who have earned their present through dedicated service and success achieved over many years.
  2. ROI. All ambition, whether internally for position, power, money or leisure, or externally for other persons or organizations, should be focused on one’s personal nature and purpose. My own return on investment experience is that the greatest return was personally achieved when I 1) worked to figure out my true nature and purpose, making sure all my ambitions were aligned to that discovery, and 2) focused ambition on the desire to channel it for the good of my firm and the other organizations of which I have been a part.

Be generous with gratitude

I tend to write on topics where I’ve learned through experience. Expressing gratitude is an area where I am still greatly lacking. I recently felt the need to speak to a fellow lawyer in my firm and express gratitude. I had asked her to help on several very important matters last year. I realized at the end of the year, and much later than her very successful completion, that I had insensitively presumed the work would be done in a timely and professional manner. Assumptions and expectations inhibit expressions of gratitude. As I’ve looked back over the years to the way I have treated firm professional administrative staff, legal assistants and all lawyer members, I realize that gratitude internally realized but not outwardly expressed is both potentially damaging to relationships and an opportunity missed. I have come to believe a few things about gratitude and ingratitude.

First, regardless of how I feel internally, unexpressed gratitude is received by others as ingratitude. Even though many law firms today espouse a new type of team culture, it is my observation that most remain a
top-down hierarchy when it comes to dealing with the substance of the work to be performed. We claim this necessary, given who is licensed, at risk and subject to the consequences of mistakes. At most law firms, lawyers at all levels, even newly employed law graduates still awaiting bar passage results, have the opportunity and obligation to instruct nonlicensed team members. Along with hierarchy comes a natural ownership mentality, that the staff work for “us,” and to the extent they perform their functions they are getting paid as agreed upon in their employment arrangement. This ownership or entitlement attitude tends to subvert expressions of gratitude regardless of whether that is internally felt. Most definitions of gratitude include an expression of appreciation or thankfulness, and I have come to believe that a failure to express feelings in this area actually sends the opposite signal, that of ingratitude, and perhaps entitlement and ownership.

Second, ingratitude, whether expressed or implied through the failure of expression, is hurtful; however, an appropriately timed and delivered expression of gratitude motivates others. This is another area where I have learned through experience. Over the years of leading the firm, I believe I can objectively say that I have been very supportive of my firm’s administrative staff. At the same time, I admit that very rarely did I ever express gratitude to any of them, either individually or as a group. This fact was pointed out to me by a former firm administrator. Late in my tenure of leadership, and within one of our confidential annual 360-degree review processes, one of our administrative staff (and given our commitment to confidentiality, I continue to not know the identity of the individual member) made a negative and hurtful comment directed at me. While I was glad that we have a process for feedback where our members feel comfortable expressing concerns and views, I was also initially hurt, since I had been so supportive of our administrative staff in real and practical ways over many years. I initially assumed that person struck out in a hurtful way due to things such as personality and demeanor. Ultimately, I came to realize that regardless of intentions and actions, my silence had conveyed the message that these valuable team members are simply employees doing their jobs for which they receive compensation. I had conveyed the message of ingratitude, expectation and entitlement. I believe that had I done a better job to express my gratitude over the years, this team member might have responded to the review question in a less hurtful manner.

Third, it is my observation that expressing gratitude is difficult for lawyers. Clients look to lawyers for guidance and leadership in the most difficult circumstances. Expressed gratitude could be viewed as being weak, and lawyers are paid to be otherwise. Lawyers sometimes think they can do it all on their own, and an expression of gratitude could send a message that the other person is needed. Instead, it seems lawyers want to believe that others are simply needed to perform the most mundane tasks so that we can serve the greatest number of clients, in what seems like fewer and fewer available minutes in the day.

Because I’ve struggled with the difficulty of expressing gratitude to others over so many years, I have incorporated a few principles into my regular introspective and contemplative thoughts. You might consider them for yourself:

  1. Repeatedly ask: Who has helped me today, this week or this month?
  2. Discipline myself to regularly express gratitude to those whom I know.

Being self-aware enough to effectively manage ambition and express gratitude is a helpful way for a lawyer to achieve satisfaction in the daily life of law practice.

Thomas C. Grella

Attorney, McGuire, Wood & Bissette, PA

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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