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Leadership Profile: Tom Grella

Tom Grella

Tom Grella is a House of Governors delegate from the ABA’s Law Practice Division. He talked with Peggy Liu, ABA Law Student Division delegate and liaison to the division, about his experience and role.

Q: How did you decide on pursuing law as a career? 

A: I was actually studying to be a computer programmer in college.  I learned all of the common programming languages of the1980s.  I was doing quite well in that endeavor when my father challenged me to look into the possibility of law school.  I did, and was interested, but had an informal offer from IBM in Washington, D.C. to work as a programmer after I graduated.  They made it clear that if I took the job with them, they did not want me to study law at night at George Washington or American or some other law school in the D.C. area.  I considered the option of sitting in front of a computer screen with the typical black and white (or black and green) screen of the time or studying law.  I chose law.

Q: What is your area of practice and what has influenced your choice? 

A: I am a transactional lawyer.  I help developers and other real property ventures with the details of raising capital from lenders or in private equity placements, and with the organizational structure of developments.  I have not always been a transactional lawyer.  At my first small practice in the relatively small town of Morganton, N.C. I did a little bit of everything.  I came to learn that I was not made for courtroom lawyering.  I was handling both civil and criminal cases, and the pressure of speaking in public was affecting my health.  I have done much since then to be able to do that comfortably, but I did discover that it was not something I could do on a regular or day-to-day basis.

Q: How has your career path developed over the years? 

A: I moved from residential real estate transactions (which was very cookie cutter and is an area of increased intrusion as a commodity) to more of a business and commercial transactional practice.  I have concentrations in certain specific areas of real property development law.  However, the biggest development in my career path occurred through my involvement in the ABA Law Practice Division.  That membership and involvement propelled me into law firm leadership and management, which includes serving for 12 years as managing partner of my law firm.

Q: What is the most/least favorite part of the work that you do currently? 

A: The most and least favorite part of the work that I do is trying to convince my partners and my firm that in order to survive in the future we are going to have to change.  It is the most favorite part of my work because lawyer management and leadership is my passion.  I really like helping lawyers with their practice and figuring out ways that they can succeed in the future.  It is my least favorite because I have found that in many cases, lawyers who have always done certain things in certain ways are not that open to change.  Many either do not care or are not interested in how the older ways of thinking will affect the sustainability of those who come after them in the firm.

Q: What does it take to succeed in the legal profession? 

A: It is my belief that it will take three things now and in the future: (1) resiliency, (2) innovation based on a complete understanding of the culture of your firm and how you can help it to be a learning and evolving culture, and (3) professional engagement.

Q: What are some of the changes you anticipate in the practice of law in the next 3-5 years? 

A: Increased competition leading to decreased demand for lawyers in providing legal service.  In addition, certain areas of traditional service may simply be taken over by non-lawyers.  Law firms will survive if they adopt more of an innovative approach to practice.

Q: Why should law students join the Law Practice Division?  

A: Because it is the place to get the type of information and resources you are going to need to have a sustainable practice in the future.  Law schools are generally not changing with respect to the amount of attention that they pay to practice management.  Law students will continue to leave school and enter an increasingly competitive environment.  Law Practice is the place that has as its primary mission helping lawyers with the business of the practice, specifically management, marketing, finance, and technology.  Beyond your substantive section (which should probably be your first choice if you have to choose between the two), it is the one entity every lawyer should be a member of.

Q: What advice would you give law students in terms of mindset and skillset that they need to start developing now?      

A: Study leadership.  Leadership is all about trust and influence of others.  Almost every lawyer thinks he or she is a great leader just because they meet with clients who listen to them because they are scared, in trouble, or want to stay out of trouble.  It is simply not true.  The better leader you are, the better lawyer you will be.  To be a better leader, train yourself to daily (1) lead yourself, (2) add value to others, (3) study leadership, (4) practice leadership, and (5) intentionally grow as a leader.

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