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The Power of Words


As attorneys, we all – some of us secretly – think of ourselves as wordsmiths. While we are, as a whole, adept with words, both written and spoken, we also far too often fail to remember to use those words. Or to listen to those words.

I was recently reminded of this when I quickly wrote a thank you note to an attorney who had referred a client to me. He was a partner, the head of a department in which I had never worked at my first law firm job more than two decades ago, who had gotten my name from a partner in the department of which I was a member. In return, I received a gracious handwritten note. He first thanked me (me!) for having acknowledged the referral and expressing gratitude for it. He went on to say that in 34 years of active practice and nearly 14 years of retirement, he had never received a thank you for a referral and he thanked me for “breaking the ice.”

Even more remarkable was the next paragraph. He said (I imagine with a mischievous smile) that no one had told him “good job” in about 25 years and stated “good job.”

So, those of you with associates or law clerks or non-legal staff, when is the last time that you said either “thank you” or “good job” in anything other than a cursory manner? If you are like me, it has been far too long.

For most of us, the same is probably true in our personal lives as well. In a similar vein to the message in the gracious “thank you for the thank you” note was something said to me several years ago by the father of three children whose best interests I represented as a Guardian ad Litem. He was (and is) a throw back sort of sorts – a tough talking, uncompromising attorney. You know, the kind who cross-examines your client by ripping her heart out of her chest and shoving it down her throat while it is still beating, then, before you can draw a single breath, sitting down with a wide, sly smile.

When I complimented him on the extraordinary emotional insight demonstrated by his children about their disastrous circumstances, he told me that he had taught them that they should always remember that there are 9 words that only a grown-up can say and mean: “I was wrong”, “I am sorry” and “I love you.”

Perhaps the most valuable lesson that I learned about being a grown-up attorney was from David Slavkin, one of the most extraordinary people I have ever had the pleasure to meet and the privilege to work for. As a young attorney working my first law firm job at Bryan, Cave, McPheeters and McRoberts, he calmly responded to my tearful admission that I had not adequately done an assignment by telling me “I make a mistake every day. The only mistake that can’t be fixed is missing a statute of limitations. Let’s figure out what to do next.”

I got similar advice from Burt Newman at Love, Lacks & Paule, my next employment. He asked me if something was done, and I responded with a litany of excuses about why it was not.

He interrupted me and reminded me that it was important to listen and answer the question that was asked. What extraordinary advice. It is important to remember that what is said to you is as important as what you say. As your parents told you when you were small, to really listen, you must listen, and not just wait to speak.

The final lesson that I treasure about the power of words comes from Bill Grant, one of the best attorneys I know. Bill was the Guardian ad Litem for the child of a client of mine and I called him because there was an extraordinary amount of conflict between the parents in front of his ward. I excitedly recited a series of horrid events and he just listened. The, when it was clear that I was done, he calmly asked me “what is it that you are asking from me?” What, indeed.

So, choose your words a little more carefully, listen a little more closely and most of all, mean what you say and say what you mean.