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As ‘big believer in karma,’ 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 three 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.”

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, behaviorial economics. As a result, the guidance that they give to their clients often is suboptimal.

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. …

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.

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.


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