In The News


Monday, November 5, 2012

Buffalo Law Journal Opinion Page: Life Lessons I Learned from a Lawyer

Life Lessons I Learned from a Lawyer

By Matt Chandler

As I looked out the office window at 10:40 this morning, rain was falling and the wind was beginning to kick up - the remnants of Hurricane Sandy. I grimaced at the thought of leaving the comfort of my desk to trek several blocks up Main Street to the offices of Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman LLP. I was scheduled to meet with founder Gerry Lippes for a piece that is scheduled to run in our sister publication, Business First, on Dec. 7. The temptation was to try and reschedule but, realizing it was too late to cancel, I bundled up and headed out into the wind-swept rain. I'm glad I did.
I knew almost immediately upon entering Lippes' office - the size of which could comfortably hold several of the apartments I have called home - that this was going to be an enjoyable interview.
I was greeted with a warm smile and a handshake. While I don't tend to get intimidated by any of the people I sit down with, this is a man who, by his own count, had founded, purchased or held a substantial stake in more than 10 companies in his career, not the least of which is the law firm he founded in 1965.
He has deep roots in the educational, health care and philanthropic communities of Western New York. He is a titan of the local legal community. In short, he carries some serious gravitas in this city. But, impressive office aside, you wouldn't know it from talking to him. In fact, quite the opposite was my experience.
Here is a guy who has managed to not only keep a law firm in business for nearly 50 years, but he has been able to prosper when so many others have come and gone. His secret: "I've been very lucky."
For a lot of men, that might come across as some sort of false modesty, but when Lippes talks about his good fortune to be surrounded throughout his career by "good, honorable, hardworking individuals," you believe him. When he says one of his cornerstone business principles is "always hiring people smarter than me," you believe him. It doesn't seem like another empty quote, or another cliched answer to an interview question because, frankly, Lippes comes across as a guy who doesn't have the time nor inclination to bother with either.
This became abundantly clear when I broached the subject of his legacy. When people reflect on his legacy, what would he most like to be remembered for? Without missing a beat, the corners of his mouth curling ever so slightly into an almost imperceptible smile, he politely told me that legacies are, shall we say, cow manure.
That's not to say he isn't proud of his many accomplishments, or appreciative of the honors, awards and citations he amassed for his charitable work. Rather, it is to say that he isn't defined by any of it.
"I don't do any of the community work to grow the firm," he told me. "I do it because this community has been very good to me and I think we all have an obligation to give of our time and our treasures."
It was that quote that rang in my head long after we shook hands and parted ways. As I walked back to the office, the rain having stopped for the moment, I imagined the hundreds of executives busy at work in the dozen or more office buildings I passed. I wondered how many of them embraced the Lippes philosophy of giving back to the community.
We may have an obligation, as he suggested, but it seems that in the iPad, Smartphone, Facebook world we live in - where everyone seems to be overcommitted, overcaffeinated and  perpetually late - it is a notion easily swept under the rug.
Gerry Lippes may be a throwback to an era gone by, but for the next generation of lawyers at his firm, here's hoping that they follow in the footsteps of their founder and chip in to make Buffalo a better place for all of us to call home.