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Legal Commentary

: Adam Smith, Esq.

Let's Just Pull the Covers Over Our Heads. Or NOT.


America has been through many crises and challenges before, far worse than what we're experiencing today. Need I mention (keeping it to economics and not including wars), the hardships and deprivations brought on by the Civil War, the long depression of 1873-1895, the Great Depression itself, the grinding stagflation of the 1970's. That we're facing a new challenge is not existentially threatening.

The problem is that many of us seem to feel it is, or at least that's the way the media is reporting it and, frankly, the way our political leaders seem to be responding to it--this is a crisis, they reiterate, and unless precipitate action is taken, disaster looms. Pass a three-quarter of a trillion dollar package this week, or else.

Robert Shiller, an economics professor at Yale, and co-author (with George Akerloff) of the just-released "Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism," has this to say in today's New York Times:

"People everywhere are talking about the Great Depression, which followed the October 1929 stock market crash and lasted until the United States entered World War II. It is a vivid story of year upon year of despair.

"This Depression narrative, however, is not merely a story about the past: It has started to inform our current expectations. [...]

"The attention paid to the Depression story may seem a logical consequence of our economic situation. But the retelling, in fact, is a cause of the current situation -- because the Great Depression serves as a model for our expectations, damping what John Maynard Keynes called our "animal spirits," reducing consumers' willingness to spend and businesses' willingness to hire and expand. The Depression narrative could easily end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy."

I recommend perspective. Perspective not that we deny the severity of this near-depression. To be sure, there are plenty of reasons to worry:

  • It's global in nature;

  • It has come upon us with shocking, whiplash-inducing speed;

  • It seems inexorable, deserved, the Puritanical comeuppance for a decade or more of living extravagantly in "sand state" McMansions, furnished with super-large flat panel TV's and navigated by Hummers, consuming energy recklessly; and to the extent this narrative rings true we feel chastened, like children rightly sent back to our rooms after immature behavior, and the small voice in the back of our minds chants "we deserved this, and we brought it on ourselves, so we have no ground on which to resist or fight back;"

  • It's striking at the heart of our 21st Century economy, the financial sector, as opposed to being a classic inventory hangover, consumer pullback, sustained oil price spike, or isolated tech bubble;

  • Speaking parochially about our industry, we have been joined at the hip to the financial services sector for as long as the boom was going on, and even before that. The New York "white shoe" firms all made their reputations on core connections to bulge bracket investment banks, and to some extent those reputations lived on until the very recent past. I suspect they'll endure beyond this interregnum, in fact.

But let's get back to perspective.

I believe two characteristics will separate the strong from the weak firms coming out of this episode. They are: (a) cultural glue; and (b) the quality of leadership.

As for "cultural glue," you had it going into this episode or you didn't. If you didn't, I sincerely wish you the best of luck, and I hope you seize this opportunity to build some, ASAP. If you have it, on the other hand, now is the time to capitalize upon and reinforce that. Other than that, I don't have too much more to add about the strength of your culture. It takes years and years to build, as does trust, and (see: Spitzer, Eliot) can be destroyed in an instant.

This brings us to the quality of leadership.

I believe this will be the key differentiator in this period. We talk about "leadership" interminably, but we do so for a reason. It matters.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, President and CEO of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute at the Yale School of Management, was recently interviewed about what leadership entails in this environment, and here's what he had to say (emphasis supplied):

  • "In times of genuine crisis, leaders do not have to use fear to alert people about the need to change from the status quo. When the place is on fire, it is counterproductive to frighten people. In battle, no one needs to be motivated.

    People want to know that their leaders are competent enough to see them through this crisis. They don't have to like you; they have to know that they can place their faith in you because you have thought it all through"

  • Successful leadership in this era comes down to four critical points.

    The first is personal accessibility. We've seen CEOs in times of crises try to circle the wagons and stonewall the media and other stakeholders. That's not the way to go. It's critical to be out there.

    The second trait of an effective leader in crisis is empathy. Show some compassion for those hardest hit.

    A third quality has to do with authenticity and believability. [He proceeds to talk about how Wall Street executives performed, or didn't, on Capitol Hill recently, and excoriates those who dissembled and seemed to be unprepared.]

    The fourth great quality of leaders in crisis is that they don't let the stress of the present preclude the boldness, courageousness, and thoughtful prudent risk-taking that is still vital to success. These leaders understand that we still have to get out there and be in business. We're not running libraries and museums; we're running dynamic enterprises that can't be afraid to take calculated risks.

    It's really tough times that bring out the greatness in leadership. Disappointments, barriers, setbacks - they are all the punctuating moments that really define a heroic career. You don't know how good an executive is until times are tough. As such, this is the time when corporate leaders can really distinguish themselves and really punctuate successes as outstanding leaders.

Study after study, time after time, has shown that Americans are the most optimistic of all nations. It's time to invoke that.

There's no sin, hereabouts, in getting knocked down. The sin--and an unforgivable one--is in not getting back up.

It will soon be time to get back up. Wall Street may be dead for now, but it's Lazarus. It has reinvented itself every decade or so for as long as I've watched it. And our firms are the handmaidens to its serial reinventions. The notion of the "Wall Street law firm," or the international law firm with a Wall Street practice, should not yet be read its last rites.

Prepare to be optimistic. Prepare to be an American. Prepare to lead.

Full post as published by Adam Smith, Esq. on February 23, 2009 (boomark / email).

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