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A remarkable woman and example of generosity we should all emulate

On the 12th of December, my grandmother turned 98 years old.  She had a wonderful birthday surrounded by friends and family—children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren—even one soon-to-be-born great-great-grandchild, who will be her namesake.  The few of us unable to attend in person called to send our love and hear about her day.  I will always remember my grandmother then as being in great spirits, serenely joyful and full of life as we celebrated her and her place in our lives.

Sadly, she died only five days later, and the hole that it leaves in my life (all of our lives) is immense.  I feel fortunate that only a few weeks before I’d journeyed from London to the small American town to visit her, and we had a wonderful time together.  I also comfort myself with the knowledge that my grandmother died knowing how important she was, to me as to so many other people.

In fact, I describe my grandmother in my book as an overly generous person who we (as lawyers!) should strive to emulate because if we follow her example of warmth and overflowing generosity, our lives will also be filled with admiration, affection and success.

Here’s the excerpt:

If we put ourselves out there for other people—doing things that require time, energy, and selfless acts—we’re never disappointed. Of course, some people will return our generosity while others won’t; that’s just the way it works. But if we act out of sincere generosity, because we want to, then even when the favor is not repaid we tend not to notice. Remember, “what goes around, comes around”—it’s not always immediate, or when remotely expected, but the universe does seem to work this way. 

My grandmothers illustrate this principle. Grandmother Fox, 97, is still with us and very much “with it”; Grandmother Mattingly, sadly, passed away several years ago. Grandmother Fox grew up without much money and worked very hard all her life. By most people’s standards she was never wealthy, but she always seemed to have a surplus—she helped my cousins through college, paid for vacations and summer camps, and even managed to help a relative start a business. Grandmother Fox always gave away more than she kept for herself. And her efforts weren’t limited to money—whenever anyone had a problem, she was there. When I had cancer, Grandmother Fox was one of my main comforts.  Nor was her generosity limited to her family—she formed deep and significant relationships with many people, because she cared for them. Because of this my Grandmother Fox is still surrounded by people, family, and friends who love and take care of her, and even those of us on other continents keep in contact with her and visit her as much as possible.

Unlike Grandmother Fox, my Grandmother Mattingly was well-off and even privileged throughout her life. My grandfather spoiled and adored her, and she in turn was very loyal to him. However, when he passed away she was left on her own because she had never really bothered to reach out to others. My grandmother expected people to do things for her; when a neighborhood girl who ran errands for her was in a car accident, Grandmother Mattingly’s primary concern seemed to be who was going to do her shopping! I still loved her, and I cherished memories of childhood times with her, but as an adult I couldn’t help seeing her selfishness for what it was. In short, unlike my Grandmother Fox, Grandmother Mattingly didn’t spend her final years surrounded by a small army of family and friends because she did not put love out for it to be returned.

The principles personified by my two grandmothers apply not only to our personal lives but to our professional ones as well. In our work, if we don’t help others, give credit where credit is due, and make sacrifices of time and support, then sooner or later we’ll find that no one (at least, no lawyer!) is going to do the same for us. And trying to achieve success alone is a near-impossible task in our profession.

Now, if you happen to be a young associate, you may be thinking, “Yes, sure, but you just don’t understand the environment I’m in. The only way to get ahead in my firm is to look out for myself and nobody else. Believe me, that’s how most partners operate, not to mention my immediate boss!” For a start, you can’t be privy to everything that’s going on behind your partners’ doors, and they may be more cooperative than you think. But second, even if it looks that way from where you are, most older or more experienced lawyers will tell you that while self-serving, arrogant, and egotistical behavior may have short-term rewards, in the long run it catches up with almost everyone.

Many of us commit the same fatal error when dealing with colleagues, clients, and contacts—the mistake of thinking “What can they do for me?” instead of “What can I do for them?” The most successful people know that if we give first, the getting somehow takes care of itself. Generosity creates prosperity! 

I already miss her so much.

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The holidays: the perfect time to network

Leading up to the holidays, you’re almost certainly desperately trying to get that all-important deal done and/or simply hoping to clear your desk. But this is one of the best possible times to move away from the comfort zone of focusing on client work to expand and nurture your relationships. As people tend to be more relaxed during this time of the year, and the party season gives you lots of opportunities to “meet and greet”, take advantage of these circumstances and reach out.

With this in mind:

Attend Holiday Parties

You may think some social event isn’t worth your business networking time, but holiday parties are a great way to get to know people in a less stressed environment. And you never know whom you might meet: some of my most creative and enjoyable contacts were first made at those despised cocktail events! 

Send Holiday Greetings

The holidays provide a great opportunity to reach out to people by sending a holiday greeting. Whether by e-mail or post, it doesn't matter how you make contact. My only caveat would be that there should be a touch of the personal about it. (If you’re just sending a card with your name scrawled at the bottom, there’s really no point in bothering.  Make it personal and engage.)

Set Up Meetings

Use your holiday greetings to proactively reach out to people you haven't connected with in a while. They will appreciate being thought about and it might give you the spark to reignite your relationship… and the opportunity to initiate a meeting!  

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The keynote speech: value versus entertainment

Last week I was asked to give a presentation to associates at a large international law firm.  I suggested one of my favorite topics:  personal branding.   The partners were appreciative: “We’re sure you’ll be entertaining, informative, and motivating”.

As we discussed the details, they were enthused by my idea that each individual’s personal brand should incorporate the firm’s core values. Yet when I suggested taking a poll during the presentation to find out how many people could actually identify these values, and—still more crucially—how well individual firm members were delivering on those values, they lost their nerve.

“Oh no,” I was told:  I couldn’t ask that.  I was supposed to be entertaining and inspiring, not instigating controversy, challenge or change.

(Of course, I adjusted to their preferences.  But what a chance missed!)

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