David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

Unbounded Cynicism and (Almost) Despair

post # 55 — April 23, 2006 — a Careers post

I hesitate to pass this on for a variety of obvious reasons. However, here goes.

On my website, by each piece of content, I invite visitors to rate (or evaluate) that item and provide feedback. The evaluation scale I offer is “1 to 5″ with 5 being a top score.

Giving my article Are Law Firms Manageable? an evaluation of 0 (yes, that’s zero) an anonymous correspondent writes:

Law firms don’t work for a simple reason. All day long, lawyers advise clients how to screw everyone. In the firm setting they advise CEOs how to screw everyone, the CFO how to screw trade creditors, etc., etc., I could go on.

Lawyers are the ONLY really honest people when it comes to firm management. They know not to trust.

All the other firms where people are trusting someone – sooner or later, the trusting ones will be screwed.

It’s hard to know how to react to this, beyond pointing out that critiquing things anonymously isn’t the basis for an intelligent dialogue. Do note something interesting – the author is saying that lawyers learn to not trust because everyone they serve wants to screw someone and then hires the lawyers to do it. The clients (the business world) are not being portrayed in a good light here. This is not just lawyer-bashing, this is businesspeople-bashing.

I’m a professional skeptic, but the sheer cynicism expressed here is deeply depressing.

Yes, I know that we’re all sinners, and that it’s naive to believe that other people will always do the right thing, but is it REALLY a practical posture to act on the principle that “sooner or later the trusting ones will be screwed.”

Surely there will be a Pygmalion effect – if people see I always treat their motives with suspicion, won’t they respond in kind? Won’t I get less from the world by taking that position?

What’s the evidence, for or against the cynical versus the hopeful view of the world?

What rule do you live by?

What rules do you teach your children to live by?


Debra H. Bender said:

My middle name is “Hope” . . . and in spite of the fact that I worked as a legal secretary for 35 years, I can’t help it. I still expect that if I treat people decently, fairly and respectfully, that attitude will be returned; 95% of the time it works. And, not all lawyers are suspicious screwers—in fact, some of my best friends are lawyers! I live, simply, with hope in the better nature of mankind.

posted on April 23, 2006

Ric said:

While it may be true that trusting people will get screwed, I believe that it’s a minority of the time – for every mongrel you trusted that screws you, you have probably five great business and/or personal realtionships (your mileage may vary – but this is approximately my ratio). I am a very firm believer that (particularly in personal relationships) if you DON’T expose yourself to the possibility of betrayal you will never develop a great relationship. This isn’t to say you should be gullible or unwary – some ‘due diligence’ is always a good idea. But if you want good partnerships, you have to allow the possibility of being screwed. In my case I would have many less good relationships if I had ‘protected’ myself from the bad ones.

posted on April 23, 2006

Edward Gabrielse said:

I expect the best of everyone.

I always trust another until they show themselves unworthy of that trust. I expect honesty, integrity, loyalty and love of God and country from all those I meet.

I am not blind to the exceptions, but this is how I choose to live my life.

It makes life so much more satisfying and fun. And, I am right 98% of the time.

posted on April 24, 2006

Justin Evans said:

The comments the fellow made in his analysis of your article really seem deeply sad to me as well. Ultimately for him, though.

I’d like to throw into the discussion a couple of points—one is that I’ve been screwed (as much as anyone else has) by unethical clients, bosses, etc. Every time I’ve experienced that I’ve gone away from it, taken a walk around the block (literally, there’s a really nice park up the road, and before that I lived really close to the harbour in Vancouver), and let it wash off.

For me, it doesn’t matter how many people are going to screw you, or are out to screw you. Because there are always the people who don’t want to. And if you get paranoid, or overly shut down, then you miss those clients, and co-workers and friends that come a long that will work with you in incredible ways.

Ultimately, for me, the most important thing is learning the emotional discipline to accept the people that will take advantage of you. I’m never going to be smart enough to catch all of them (not to mention that I’ve been mistaken on that one before, and have thought someone was out to get me, when it turned out they were just operating from premises I didn’t understand at the time). Accepting that that is GOING to happen, accepting that life is a mess, has meant for me being able to choose what I do with it.

This doesn’t mean being a pushover. If someone is unjust to me, I fight back, and hard. But accepting that that is going to happen, and then trying to not have it cloud your judgement when it does, allows me to find the great people to work with and for that I have. If I got paranoid and defensive from bad experiences, I wouldn’t have the amazing co-workers and clients that I do have.

posted on April 24, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Katherine McPherson at UK law firm Herbert Smith sent this by email –

(START QUOTE) Best not to get depressed by this particular writer. There are probably bad things going on his life. However, perhaps I too am cynical having worked in law firms for a while, there is some truth in what he says.

I have a personal conviction to work with people I trust and so I can enjoy working. By and large I have been able to find them. These firms often do go though change and then the fit may not be as good. This is the point at which I start looking for a new job. I don’t want to spend my life working in the kind of environment this person describes and I certainly don’t want to teach my children that this is all working life offers.

It’s all about personal integrity. The cost, it’s personal as well as corporate. I don’t have the status I might have been able to get or the money I might have been able to earn because of the choices I have made, but in my book that is ok. (END OF QUOTE)

Thanks for the comment, Kath, and for the personal note of encouragement. I’m not personally depressed about all this, just sad that there are obviously people who have given up faith in their fellow man.

posted on April 24, 2006