What I learned from a man who was the best
I was alone.
Sometimes the best things start that way.
Surrounded by cubicles in a law school career development office, I was waiting for an interview to finish. I was about to meet a man who could alter the direction of my career. But I didn’t know it.
My name was called.
I walked into the interview room and met an older man with an intoxicating grin. Instantly the trajectory of my professional life changed.
It isn’t often that you meet someone who will have a massive impact on your life. But I am extremely grateful that Frank Harrison Reynolds liked me enough that day to give me a chance to work at his firm.
Though I am overjoyed for him, Frank’s recent retirement from the practice of law saddened me — I miss him and his advice.
One piece of advice that he gave has turned years of advice into pages of notes: always carry a pen and paper with you. Yes, Frank, I took notes during every one of our conversations. I captured your advice, just as you said it.
Now I have a collection of treasured words and anecdotes. I couldn’t capture Frank’s trademark smile, though, and I couldn’t capture his cackle. Those stay with me and with those of us who know him. But for this short article, his words will have to do.
Gratitude compels me to collect some of my favorite advice from Frank, and to share it with anyone who will listen.
You don’t need to be a lawyer to learn from Frank. You just need to be someone who wants to be the best at what they do.
There are certainly people who know more about Frank than I do. Many Michigan lawyers have practiced with him and have stories to tell. Frank’s high-profile cases have captured Lansing, Michigan, and the entire country at times.
I met Frank near the end of his career. I learned from him after he had years of experience. Here is just some of what I admire about him.
- Frank reinvented himself many times. His first career was as a public school teacher. He taught English and history. He could quote Shakespeare and his favorite military generals with equal ease.
- He returned to school to become a lawyer.
- He started from humble beginnings as a lawyer. He took court-appointed cases to learn his craft and also to build a solid reputation.
- He built an incredible legal practice from nothing. He started on his own and became one of the best lawyers in the country.
- He is always organized and prepared.
- He has given as much to his community and his profession as much as anyone I know.
- Frank moved for my entrance to the Michigan bar as an attorney. Of course, being Frank he made sure we did not go to just any court, but to the Michigan Supreme Court.
There is something that I appreciate about Frank more than anything else, though.
Frank saw something in me that very few other people have. He wanted me to work at his firm. He knew that I would be successful. And he was willing to bet on his belief by giving me an opportunity.
I will never forget that.
From that opportunity comes the gratitude that compels this article. If you want to learn from the best, you need to learn from Frank Harrison Reynolds.
Here’s some of what he told me.
On Being Confident
Frank told me that confidence comes from being competent and having experience. Frank repeatedly told me that I had to speak up more. He often told me, “Stick up for yourself — no one else will.” He was never afraid of hard conversations. He just jumped in, spoke his mind without trying to offend, and then moved on.
I am sure Frank has done well financially. But he also told me that “it’s not about the money.” You should expect to be paid if you are good at what you do. But you don’t do it just for the money. Be the best. The best will eventually be paid the best.
Frank had many victories, but he also didn’t win every time. I know that Frank aspired to be a judge. He ran in a local election, but lost. Later he told me that a defeat is not the ending. Just keep going. He often said that “there is nothing wrong with being frustrated” when I would tell him about a new problem. He knew that frustration can lead to growth. In some ways, I am grateful that he never sat behind the bench, as he would never have asked me to join him in private practice if he won that election.
On Telling the Truth
Frank is refreshingly honest. If he liked something, you knew it. If he didn’t like something, you knew that, too. He never told the truth in a hurtful way, though. He aimed to resolve differences so that everyone could move forward.
On Facing Reality
“Learn not to react to bad news,” he told me. Novices let the news of the day affect their mood. Masters accept the bad news and plan accordingly.
Facing reality can be difficult. Frank said that some attorneys cannot accept the facts as they are given. They want to change the facts to fit a certain argument or position. “The best attorneys,” he said, “accept the facts as given and start from there.” That principle probably applies to most situations. Most people fail to face reality.
On Being Well-Rounded
The English and history teacher never went away. Frank read often. His base of knowledge was incredible. He would quote poetry, history, and current events just as easily as he could cite legal cases and ethical rules. It is easy to forget that there is a man behind the master. Frank loved the arts, entertainment, and learning. His passions outside the law made him a better lawyer.
Even though Frank often represented the high-profile clients, he was adamant about maintaining high ethical standards. Every individual is entitled to a defense — but only an ethical one. If he was not sure of how to proceed, he researched it. He found his own mentors and figured out the right way to act in every situation. He even pulled out his research files to show me ethical opinions that he saved. Frank had an ethical basis for everything that he did. He valued his profession more than his place in it.
In practice, Frank was confident in his abilities. He had a busy practice and worked on the best cases. I once asked Frank about getting more work when I was not as busy as I wanted to be. “Go get your own clients,” he would say. Find your own work. Don’t wait for everyone around you to hand you what you want. Go get it yourself. Security doesn’t come from being around the right people. Your security comes from your ability to perform.
I once asked Frank about how to use a work evaluation that I received. His response surprised me. Frank loved evaluations, but he warned about them as well. “Don’t wait for your employer to give you an evaluation,” he said. “Do your own. Pick your criteria and then evaluate yourself.” You can start with how an employer would judge you, but don’t stop there. Set your own standards. Try to live up to them. Don’t lie to yourself if you miss the mark. Get better.
He said more about evaluations: “Honest feedback needs to be given more than once a year.” He also warned about making evaluations personal. Be instructive. Take the time to go over the evaluation with the person being evaluated.
On Building a Tribe
Frank looked for people that he liked and then did everything he could to help them succeed. He formed what he called “our group” and invited lawyers from different offices to meet for lunch around once a quarter. There was a great mix of young lawyers and experienced ones. Everyone there was focused on being the best and practicing law the “Frank Reynolds” way. He paid for lunch, and we all reaped the benefits. I developed great relationships during those lunches. I received some of the best advice in my career just by listening to the discussions during those lunches.
Frank was the master of running meetings. It might seem like an underrated skill, but the ability to run an effective meeting is rare. So I asked him about it. “Never go to a meeting without an agenda,” he said. The person running the meeting needs to send out the agenda before the meeting and also keep the topics limited to what’s on the agenda. Frank also loved to schedule meetings in advance so he could plan accordingly. If he ran a committee, he set the committee meeting dates for an entire year. If you don’t book them at the beginning, no one will show up at the end. Finally, start and end on time.
On Young People
Frank always looks out for younger attorneys. He believed that beginners always needed two things: (1) continuing education to improve skills, and (2) opportunities to share frustrations and disappointments. Frank reached out to more people than almost anyone else I know. He also asked questions and listened. He learned when we had frustrations. More importantly, he used what he learned from us to make positive changes. He would often go right to decision makers and be a force for change.
Frank focused not on giving back, but just on giving. He always tried to be involved in his community. He stayed up to date on the news and every time he found something relevant to someone he knew, he sent them the article or link. He volunteered in the community often. He supported causes that he admired, but also causes that were important to people that he cared about.
Frank, more than anyone else, taught me that young people are important. He loved mentoring people younger than himself. He always made time for me, and countless others as well. He knew that young people needed support and guidance. He loved taking young attorneys to a meeting or to court with him and then having them run the hearing or meeting. Frank knew that the only way young people would get experience as a lawyer was to take them with him as he did it.
Frank was a great attorney. He knew the law. He knew how to try a case in a courtroom. He knew how to handle difficult clients. But he also had a skill that is rare for attorneys — how to market his practice. He taught me that most attorneys try to market the wrong way. He noticed that most attorneys find a client and then try to do the work. He taught me to think differently. First, ask what kind of client do I want to represent? What type of client am I looking for? Once I knew who I was looking for, then I could create a plan to find those types of people.
Frank was adamant: discuss fees right away. Fees have to be win-win. Don’t negotiate fees if you believe you are worth it and other clients are happily paying. Be firm and if your fees are not acceptable to a prospective client, respectfully decline. Frank often gave the names of two or three other attorneys that might be a better fit. But he also understood that sometimes you have to be flexible with your fees if you are starting a practice or learning a new area of the law. Still, Frank was always upfront about fees and expected to be paid for doing good work.
On Relationships with Clients
Frank was the master of client relationships. Take charge of the relationship with your client right away. He would walk through each section of a lengthy engagement agreement before starting to represent a client. Each section was important. He did this to set expectations at the beginning of the professional relationship. He did not wait for his clients to set the expectations. He set the expectations and then met or exceeded them. Frank always told his clients that the only problem he absolutely could not solve was the one he did not know about. He encouraged communication in order to serve his clients well.
There is no substitute for being organized. You cannot serve someone without great organization, especially as you accept more responsibility. Frank created checklists for every aspect of his practice. He had an intake checklist, a hearing checklist, a trial checklist, and even a closing checklist. Frank even made a sheet that contained common evidence objections, with citations, so that he could review and have it handy while in court. The guy has tried more cases than most people have ever even heard of in a lifetime, yet he still wanted to stay sharp and ready to perform.
On Time Management
“The task stretches to fit the time,” he often said. “Get things done well in advance.” “Finish your work and move on to the next project.” “If you want to get something done, give it to the busiest person that you know.” For decades, Frank had a busy law practice. He had to be productive. He warned against sitting on tasks — even small ones. He knew that nothing gets easier the longer it stays undone. He warned: “Don’t let small issues turn into big problems.”
Frank knew that the first step to solve many problems is to first define it. “Never be afraid to articulate exactly what the problem is,” he said. Frank quoted Madeleine L’Engle, who said, “If you can put it into words, it takes the mystery away.” The best option for problem solving is always the one with the direct conversation. “Everything works better when the problems are laid out and not hidden.” I am reminded of many situations in my past, when an issue arose and instead of confronting it directly, I did not speak up. Problems linger when no one talks about them. Frank knew that leaders need to confront issues directly.
On Meeting with Mentors
Frank encouraged me and countless others to speak with attorneys more successful than us and ask one specific question: what habits do you think I should be developing that will be useful later in my career? Is there a more powerful question to ask someone a lot farther down the path?
On Thick Skin
I once told Frank about a situation that I took offense to. I heard someone say something that really bothered me. As he always did, Frank listened to my entire story. I then asked Frank what to do. Instead of telling me what to do, he simply said, “I think you need to get a little bit thicker skin. Don’t say anything about the situation right now. Just hustle.” Frank knew that taking offense at something someone said is rarely a solution to a problem. Even more, Frank reminded me often that people remember things the way they choose to remember them. Sometimes, my offense is due more to my own emotions than to what someone actually said.
On Taking Things Personally
Frank once lost a hearing that he intensely wanted to win. The judge even made a comment that seemed to be a personal dig at Frank. He remembers that he felt the urge to say something bad about the judge in court and immediately afterwards. Fortunately, he resisted. He decided to not take the comment personally. He believed that there is no room for personal attacks in a professional setting. “Don’t speak badly about the judge — just appeal the ruling. Everything will work itself out. When you are finished in a courtroom, leave and don’t let the experience carry over into the rest of your day.” Frank truly believed that. Fortunately, Frank did not speak his mind that day. The judge later called Frank to apologize. The judge said that the comment came from a personal situation that the judge had, and was not an attack on Frank. Frank replied, “You don’t need to apologize — I didn’t take it personally.”
“You have to be an honest communicator. Be honest in every situation. You have to speak up if you have a problem.” He hated when people had an opportunity to speak up — whether in a meeting, court hearing, or otherwise — and did not do it. And then those same people would complain about the problem later. Nothing works if people do not communicate honestly.
“Just pick up the phone,” was one of Frank’s favorite phrases. Frank always said that email is great, but sometimes you need to pick up the phone and have a discussion. There is no substitute for talking through an issue. With email or other written communication, it is so easy to take something the wrong way. So many people just want to send an email. I do the same thing. Email is great, but not for everything. I have repeatedly tried to solve a problem by sending a long email. It has rarely worked. Now, I try to consider whether a quick phone call can solve a problem. And if so, I take Frank’s advice and “just pick up the phone.”
“To be the best, you have to learn from the best.”
— Frank Harrison Reynolds
I miss working with Frank. I miss being able to stop by and listen to his advice. I miss his grin when he would share some of his fun courtroom war stories. I miss his candor and his ability to say the perfect words to course correct. I miss his ability to punch you in the nose without touching you at all.
I know he’s just a call away, still. I am grateful for him and what he’s taught me. And I am grateful now that others can learn from him, too.
Whenever I feel alone in my office — like I did on that day that I first met him — I am often interrupted by someone asking me for advice. Frank’s grin pops into my head, and I echo some words of wisdom that Frank told me not too long ago.
Then, no longer lonely, but entirely grateful, I think of Frank. Frank, thanks for being the best, and thanks for caring enough to show others how to do the same.