One year ago today, on March 4, 2019, we lost our patriarch, colleague and friend, Walt Moeling. I don’t know that any client situation, much less a working day, goes by without each of us thinking about how Walt would have handled it.
On one hand, that makes the writing of this blog post one of the more difficult assignments. On the other hand, I have the good fortune of knowing exactly what Walt thinks about this post (albeit in a wholly different context). I wrote the first draft of this post almost five years ago. After sharing with Walt, he commented that he liked the concept, but didn’t want it to be “all about him.” The post then got added to my ever-growing “blog post ideas” folder, potentially never to be seen again.
But this post is supposed to be all about Walt, so I’m happy to publish it now.
One advantage of Bryan Cave Leighton Pasiner’s banking practice is our depth and camaraderie. Based on what Walt Moeling and Kathryn Knudson have built over the last 40+ years, we have a breadth of experience that few can match.
But that breadth would be useless if Walt and Kathryn had not also instilled an environment where open discussion is the rule rather than an exception. The following e-mail from Walt to the group highlights this approach, and the rationale for it.
The most important thing a lawyer can do in most engagements is fully understand the issues, including the goals and motivation of both our client and what we tend to call the adverse party. This is frequently a very difficult undertaking since we do not always have access to an impartial and reliable source of information. Accordingly, as all new associates at Powell Goldstein (a predecessor to Bryan Cave) were taught by Mr. Max Goldstein (one of the Powell Goldstein founders), it is imperative that we ‘Beware the false assumption!” Mr. Max was in his 80’s and had a very weak voice, but he would thunder this phrase.
I suspect you have also heard my thoughts about self-deception (‘The ultimate human trait is the capacity for self-deception.”), which goes to why we will always be plagued with “false assumptions.”
These thoughts tie directly back to the predictions that were absolutely wrong, most if not all by people of near genius status. In many of the cited cases, it is easy to identify the cause of the miscalculation as being grounded in defensive self-interest, e.g., if the telephone does succeed, Western Union will not! In others, the explanation may be more difficult, e.g., one could not accuse Einstein as lacking vision!
All of this goes to the value of working in an environment where open discussion is the rule, not the exception, and where challenges to assumed ideas and concepts are appreciated if not enjoyed. The fact is that we will all be wrong from time to time, and the best way to therefore ameliorate the problem is to seek out rather than avoid challenges. In no way do I think I am wrong more than others in my assumptions, but I also think I have succeeded by forcing myself to try to understand the big picture of each new matter—the goals and motivations of both my clients and the “adverse parties.” Each of you has called me to task or brought me back to reality (and some of you frequently), but out of those discussions have come better understandings. Do not be afraid of being wrong, but do fear the unchallenged assumptions on which you base your thoughts. We have the greatest assets possible all around us. Use them without fear of looking stupid. You will be in some pretty good “miscalculating” company!
Our willingness to share our experiences, and our failures, makes each of us better positioned to help our clients. I believe almost all of our clients have heard something to the effect of “I want to bounce this off my colleagues.” We take pride in our relationships, both internal to the firm, and external with our clients and others serving the industry.
As I read Walt’s e-mail again (which is a classic Walt e-mail, complete with voice impressions, stories from the past, and self quotation), I can only hope to continue to learn from Walt’s wisdom. We lost a great friend when Walt passed away, but we are a stronger group and stronger firm because of his leadership. Rest in peace, Walt.