A few weeks ago, I had the great fortune of attending a grade-school reunion in the same cafeteria in which I ate soggy french fries and drank chocolate milk every day for six years back in the 1980s. The four individuals who so graciously planned this reunion did not just work tirelessly to locate as many of our classmates as possible, but they reached out to all of our old teachers, and, get this– our old principal, Mr. Neilsen. Much to my surprise, there were as many teachers as students at the reunion, and not five minutes after I arrived, in walked Mr. Neilsen, who I believe just celebrated his 80th birthday.
Mr. Neilsen was a fantastic elementary school principal. Funny, outgoing and always kind. In fact, at the end of each and every day (or at least that is how I remember it), Mr. Neilsen would stand at the very front door of the school, and as every child left the building, he would shout “Everyone go home and be nice.” And man, did his voice carry.
How, you must be asking yourself, is this related to the legal field, practicing law and/or finding a new job?
Very simply, Mr. Neilsen was a brilliant man who gave simple-but-wise advice to us kids: Be nice. Sure, his advice focused on how we should act at home, but we all knew what he really meant: be nice to each other; hold the door open for another person; allow someone in a hurry to slide past you on the street; and treat all people with the same level of respect you would want to receive.
Sadly, in my observations of late, I am seeing more and more job seekers who do not abide by this rule and who do not think it is necessary to be nice to others. By others, I mean anyone and everyone we encounter in our daily life, from the grocery clerk to the court clerk and everyone in between. Being rude, inconsiderate and disrespectful to anyone is a dangerous way to operate, because sooner or later the individual you flipped the bird to for cutting you off on the sidewalk is going to turn up as a partner in the law firm you work in, or worse, an interviewer during your next job interview. And make no mistake, he will not have forgotten about your seemingly anonymous hand gesture.
A great example of this recently happened to me. For the first five years after law school, I practiced law as a commercial litigator, and like most associates, after two years I decided to see what else was out there. At the time, the economy was in good shape and opportunities were plentiful, so it was not long before I secured an interview with a well-known firm in the area. The interview started off very well, and I felt like I “clicked” with the first three people I met. However, as soon as I walked into the office of the fourth individual, I knew the interview was doomed. For whatever reason (to this day, I do not know what it is), even before I opened my mouth to say “hello,” this senior associate did not like me. He spent the 20 minutes we had together treating me with disrespect and criticizing the responses I gave to every question he asked of me. I remember it as if it was yesterday: those were the longest 20 minutes of my life.
Needless to say, I did not get that job, but I went on to practice at another firm for a few more years before becoming a legal recruiter. Truth be told, I never really thought about that interview again.
That is, until last week, when I met with a new candidate that reached out to me for help after he had been passed up for partner twice in the last two years. Imagine my surprise when I walked into the waiting area of my office, and there was the senior associate that treated me like garbage over five years ago. At that instant, I had a quick decision to make: do I treat him like he treated me or do I remain professional and treat him like I would any other new candidate with whom I was meeting?
Make no mistake, I wanted to go with the former, but I ultimately went with the latter. And the truth is, the guy turned out to be fairly nice, but he was now in need of my help, so I was not surprised by his change in demeanor (I did not get the impression that he remembered me). Even so, that is not the point.
Here is my point: take my former elementary school principal’s advice and be nice. To everyone. Because the next person you mistreat or disrespect could turn out to be someone you need to impress. And by the time you figure this out, it will certainly be too late.
So, thank you Mr. Neilsen for drilling a simple but invaluable rule into my brain: Be nice. Not just to the people you love or the people you deem important, but to everyone.