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As ‘big believer in karma,’ Buffalo lawyer promotes decisions that lead to good fortune

Scott E. Friedman’s 30-year legal career, family life and front-row seat to Buffalo’s revitalization built and underlined his basic philosophy.

“I’ve come to think that people don’t tend to spend enough time thinking about how lucky they are or how grateful they should be for all the blessings that we have,” he said.

Sure, you say, it’s easy for a man at the top a firm with more than 60 lawyers at Fountain Plaza in downtown Buffalo and offices in Albany, New York City and Burlington, Ont. Someone married for 32 years with four daughters making their own marks in different parts of the world. A guy recently invited by the governor to serve on the University at Buffalo Council, which helps shape how UB builds partnerships in Western New York and far beyond.

Deliberate choices set the stage for such good fortune.

“I’m a big believer in karma,” said Friedman, 58, chairman and CEO of Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman. “Actions have reactions and one thing leads to another. We don’t always understand that right away.”

Related story: Scott E. Friedman also shepherds medical breakthroughs in Buffalo and beyond

Over time, he has looked to bridge the lessons he has learned representing those in the medical field with the business world, particularly companies run by families and friends.

Q. You’ve quantified the old saw, “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” Where do law schools and business law specialists come into play?

There is cutting-edge science that informs how people think, how they sometimes don’t think, how they can get along better and reasons why they don’t often get along. The legal profession hasn’t paid as much attention as it should to some of the insights from fields such as neuroscience and positive psychology, behavioral economics. As a result, the guidance that they give to their clients often is suboptimal. ... I’ve been fortunate to spend a lot of time around Dr. Nick Hopkins, a pioneering neurosurgeon who helped developed the field of endovascular neurosurgery and, more recently, the Jacobs Institute. Nick’s vision is to create a space where people from different fields and can come together, collide and share ideas.

Q. You’ve looked to science to help instruct your business philosophy and life practices.

Great companies have chief cultural officers and chief happiness officers, companies like Google and Amazon and Zappos. They appreciate the importance of finding time to meditate in the course of a day or take a break to do yoga or play Foosball. During a stressful day in our office, it’s good to take a break and play bubble hockey or take 5 minutes and do contemplative breathing. Great organizations are bringing this sort of thing into their businesses.

Q. What tend to be the great challenges for family businesses?

They start with high levels of trust. Who would one trust more than a parent or a child or a sibling? But over time, there’s that same cliché in every country in the world. In China, it’s “Rice bowls to rice bowls.” In Scandanavian countries, it’s “Clogs to clogs in three generations.” I think it’s going back to how our brains are hard-wired to live and survive in a very different world than we live in today. In family businesses, we tend to not focus on culture, we tend to not focus on how we communicate. A lot of people end up in family businesses because it’s expected, it’s convenient, it’s lucrative, not because it’s the right fit. That goes to the science of happiness. I think a lot of families and businesses don’t spend time to really clarify and remain committed to their core principles, so they make decisions that tend to be ad hoc and random and expedient. Those decisions can be inconsistent, biased and self-interested.

The work I do is focused on what can be done to reinforce trust, to focus on culture, to focus on clear principles and principle-based decisions. To focus on communication guidelines. To focus on job fit, because that allows an individual to flourish because he or she loves what they’re doing, not because it’s expected. To focus on helping families appreciate getting thoughtful advice from outsiders who don’t have the same family biases. To focus on planning that’s not just narrowly focused on money but focused on family dynamics and family relationships, holistic planning. And then, strategies to pre-empt conflict, to figure out how individuals who have a disagreement can get together and constructively reconcile differing opinions so they can move forward collaboratively together, as opposed to leaving differing opinions unreconciled and bubbling over from small issue to small issue, till you reach a period of time where all these issues have built up to a point of exploding and it’s a family business tragedy.

The ability to flourish in a family business translates into opportunities and strategies to flourish in any business and, beyond that, in any relationship. Some of the most interesting science right now that’s being done in places like Harvard and Yale and Stanford focuses on the science of altruism, the science of compassion. Stanford University has a Forgiveness Center. They’re studying the power of forgiveness, something the great religions have always known and great philosophers always appreciated, but what’s interesting today is that scientists are finding new ways to generate empirical data around subjects that include meditation, mindfulness. This is something Buddhists have been practicing for 2000 years. Scientists are studying the ability of the brain to regenerate and become creative and to be thoughtful and empathetic and to create more nuanced understanding of the human condition. ... These are strategies to help us live a better, more fulfilling life

We were talking about the blackboards in the graveyard: “Before I die, I’d like to _________.” Not a lot of people think about life being finite and the importance of time and using it wisely. There are studies about the importance of being grateful, which can create a sense of well-being which, in turn people get energized when they came into the office. “I’m happy to be alive today, that I got up and there was food on table.”

The paradigm has always been, “I’m going to go and make a lot of money and I’ll be happy.” It turns out – and this is the science around positive psychology – that happy people love what they do regardless. They’re energized. They’re creative. They’re thinking. It drives innovation. They’re much more likely to be successful, and businesses are beginning to understand that culture is important and employees are important because that drives bottom line profit.

The point around job fit is that if you love your job, and it becomes not just a job or career, but a calling, you don’t feel like you’re working. It’s fun. It’s interesting. I get calls in the evenings and on weekends, and I feel the same way. I don’t feel like someone is intruding on my time and space. These are my clients, my friends.

It’s a science about helping people figure out what they really want to do and for employers to let them go do it, creating a structure that facilitates getting the best out of their people.

Q. What advice do you tend to give in your role as an executive in residence with the UB Family Business Center, or if you’re talking to clients who might be struggling with family members in business?

There are thoughtful and scientifically validated strategies that help people and teams and organizations flourish, but it really starts with appreciation, not necessarily focusing on what’s wrong, but what’s right. Not a lot of people have the ability to inherit an interest in a family business or to have a job that they can go to. But because of the fight or flight instinct that we have, we tend not to be so appreciative and tend not to be so grateful for the blessings. What do we have? What are our skills? Our assets? What have we done right that we can learn from and grow with and depend on? There’s a lot of science on how much more we accomplish when we build on what’s working than when we try to fix what’s wrong and do problem solving.

Q. What does a positive mental atmosphere in the workplace look like?

We emphasize and promote a culture of collegiality. We want individuals to understand the importance of helping, where you break down silos and don’t care about who brings a client in and has a particular relationship. Our only concern is “What can we do to serve our clients’ best interests?” We have a lot of collaboration. It’s not simply about helping but the spirit in which people help. It’s not a recalcitrant, reluctant agreement to help out because that’s what the job requires. We want people who like collaborating who when asked to help out do so with a smile on their face. There’s a lot of science out of places like Yale on the importance of smiling and the energy that it builds. Scientists have done studies that demonstrate that people who smile are more likely to be hired, more likely to be promoted, more likely to negotiate a contract successfully because you connect with people.

Q. Are there things you do to take care of your health and wellness?

I’m very conscious about exercising, eating well, sleeping well, being around people that bring me up, not pull me down. I meditate daily for 20 minutes in the morning before I leaves the house. When I’m in the office, I find myself being mindful when I take a meditative breath or two. Just doing that can help me recalibrate and reset.


Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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