Process and Prosperity


 My partnership memo and related conversations weren’t the first time I had presumed to smuggle interpersonal process into the professional workings of Murphy & Green. When I first joined the firm, in 1983, three other recruits had come aboard at the same time. That being the case, Jack and Jack had left it to us to determine the order in which our names would appear on the letterhead.

Our foursome consisted of two recent graduates, one of whom had just finished clerking for the firm, a lawyer who had practiced for several years in another state and me, with more gray hair than all the other three combined. Someone suggested we draw straws and be done with this uncomfortable business. I pretended to be fine with that but suggested we first take a few minutes, over lunch, to explore whether any of our names should come ahead of the others on the masthead.

At lunch, the woman who had clerked for the firm suggested such tenure might entitle her to seniority for letterhead purposes. The other recent grad countered that having himself clerked at one of Chicago’s larger, more established firms, his decision to join the young upstarts, Murphy & Green, had astounded his peers; in response to which, he had assured them that in just a few years, his name would be right up near the top of an ever-growing M & G letterhead.

“Leapfrogging the three of you would get me off to a fabulous start!” he now enthused. Then, in a more pensive tone, he added, “And it would impress the hell out of my father.”

The lawyer who had practiced in another state was also surprisingly candid. He wasn’t too concerned about a couple of rungs up or down on the masthead. But he fretted that so conciliatory a stance – were it to leave the roommight tarnish his hard won image as a tough negotiator!

Touched by all this self-disclosure (and realizing the lunch hour was almost over), I suggested my name come last and that the others quickly reach a consensus as to the proper order for theirs. Pandemonium ensued. You would have thought I had pulled out a revolver and pointed it at my temple! It became a matter of utmost urgency to talk me out of this, lest the others be perceived as having taken unfair advantage of me.

In the face of this uproar, I offered to break the logjam by going first on the letterhead. We all had a good laugh and then proceeded to draw straws.

The meeting thus concluded with the same result and yet a totally different feeling than if we had just drawn straws in the first place. I don’t remember the order in which our names ended up. Within a few years, I was the only one of the four still on the letterhead (which by then, in all events, was alphabetical). But I do know no one left that meeting feeling shortchanged by the outcome.

Looking back on these, my prime breadwinning years, it occurs to me that “climbing the letterhead” meant no more (and no less) than squaring my lofty pronouncements with my own productivity on a sustainable basis. When all is said and done, that’s what walking one’s talk means in the business and professional world.

And what of those whose economic fate was also riding on my effort to integrate what I had learned in the community with my professional and worldly responsibilities? In those years, I made them my safety net. Before embarking on any course that threatened to impact us all financially, I’d convene a family meeting. There I’d lay out all the risks, like the hospital does when you go in for surgery. I’d ask my kids what they thought I should do … and whether they were willing to absorb their share of the economic blow if things turned out badly.

In that sense, the caption on my partnership memo might just as well have read:

TO:         JLM, JJG and KMO

FROM:    ET and his wife and boys