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Imagine the terror of being adrift in a lifeboat for eight months with a 450-pound Bengal tiger as your only companion, continuously exposed to sun, wind, rain, and sea. That’s exactly what happens to Pi, the 16-year-old protagonist in the current bestseller The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. Through courage, stamina, and resourcefulness, Pi survives his ordeal. It’s a story that holds lessons for us as legal administrators. Who or what is the tiger in your lifeboat, and how do you survive with it? As legal administrators, we are in a tricky position. We work to earn the respect of our partners and to be treated as equals, but at the same time, we lack the natural entrees to relationship building that partners have with one another. We also strive to be on top of all the issues, but worry that this is not possible. Ours is a demanding job, with diverse responsibilities for everything from accounting and taxes to personnel and labor law to the latest technology and software. As a result, it’s difficult for one person to fully comprehend all the intricacies. Fear can be a pitfall for a law firm administrator who worries too much about job security — conventional wisdom holds that the average tenure is just two years. But to be effective in the role, you must have confidence in yourself and your judgment. A colleague once told me of a partner who enjoyed looking for subjects where the administrator was less proficient, and then asked questions he knew the administrator couldn’t answer. The administrator allowed the tactic to undermine his confidence and, ultimately, his performance. We must keep in mind that attorneys are our peers and partners in ensuring the success of the firm. Don’t forget: We are all on the same team. If necessary, we can overcome any fears by standing up to those who try to dominate with brilliance. Don’t be intimidated if your ideas are challenged. Keep cool, keep focused, have confidence in yourself. As Pi says, “Fear is a clever and treacherous adversary, it has no decency, and it shows no mercy.” Several years ago, there was a case study used at a workshop concerning an administrator who was asked to develop a system to measure the efficiency of the partners’ collections against their billings. But once the method was established, the administrator was severely criticized by some because the system revealed one practice group was not as profitable as another. “You just don’t understand how things work around here,” the administrator was told. As a result, this system was not implemented. Not surprisingly, the lawyers in the more profitable practice group eventually figured out they were carrying the less profitable group and left the firm. The task for the case study participants was to help the administrator decide what to do. Pi would have seen this system for measuring productivity as a survival tool for the firm. This tool would have led all the partners to face the fact — sooner rather than later — that one group was more profitable than the other and make the hard decisions for a more equitable distribution of profits. Once you identify the tiger in your lifeboat, how do you survive with it? Pi has two choices: either fear the tiger or have faith in himself to overcome his fear. Pi chooses faith because faith is the only real antidote to fear. Pi derives his faith by practicing three different religions, and by learning as he watches and mimics the animal handlers in the zoo. We as legal administrators develop faith the same way as Pi, by knowing and facing who we are beneath the surface, and by believing in what we are about. Our faith comes through observing, examining, taking chances, growing, and learning the flight distance of our fears. The truer we are to ourselves, the less need there is for any outer reassurance. To face the tiger, Pi uses the body language he learns from the lion tamer. This includes resolute posture, calm demeanor, steely gaze, and fearlessly stepping forward. These techniques fill the animal’s mind with doubt and fear and establish authority. Pi respects, but is not afraid of, the tiger. It is no secret that the most successful administrators are superior relationship builders. Real relationships are founded on giving of self, on connection, on knowing the other in a true sense, and in being present for that other person. This is the type of relationship the administrator should be developing with partners, lawyers, and staff. This is different than developing a utilitarian relationship; this is making an honest attempt to get to know your colleagues as people, to become friends with them, to draw on their wisdom, to do them favors, and to develop a common interest. My best friend is a former partner in a firm where I was the administrator. We have a mutual interest in train spotting, which spawned a 20-year friendship. My friend’s caring personality and his sage and practical wisdom are my sanity check. He cautions me when he thinks I should back off and encourages me to proceed when he thinks I am right. This personal relationship started when I asked him about the model trains in his office. Relationship building is simply a matter of taking the time to find out a common interest and then sharing that interest. Office adornments are an easy clue, but by simply going out to lunch with someone, you can learn much about shared interests. We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable to our colleagues and honest about who we are. We must learn to share our feelings before we can begin to build trust. Sometimes this requires conflict because the painful truth is almost as difficult to deliver as it is to receive, but this is how relationships are built. Human nature makes it difficult to deliver bad news; however, the longer you take to tackle a personnel problem, the more harm you will do to the people you seemingly care about the most. We’ve lost sight of the idea that we can’t be happy all the time. However, even though facing painful issues is not pleasant, it helps us grow as individuals and as organizations. We also develop relationships by making charitable assumptions about a person’s motives. It is human nature to make assumptions about people when you first meet them, but if you decide to make a positive assumption about someone, this establishes the basis for a working relationship to flourish. Admit it when you make a mistake, and let someone do you a favor. It may seem counterintuitive, but people love to do favors for others. This is such a simple technique with powerful results. By asking for a favor, no matter how small, it can be a key to beginning a relationship with that person. Our faith takes us on that journey, gives us the courage to leap into that fear of the unknown, and releases the confidence to tackle the difficult challenges. Be like Pi. You’re the smartest person in the world, if only you knew it. Kenneth Knott is the director of administration for McKee Nelson’s New York office.

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