In my last blog post, which I am ashamed to say was all the way back in May of last year, I concluded by noting that, between 2010 and 2014, a bank’s ability to control costs appeared to be more closely correlated to its earnings performance than its ability to grow interest income. I also stated that my next article would examine whether or not that correlation should hold in a rising interest rate environment. However, since it appears that interest rates will never again rise meaningfully (notwithstanding the Federal Reserve’s feeble attempt to start the process last month, one they may very well need to reverse soon the way 2016 is starting out), I decided to scrap that whole series altogether. Instead, I decided to start the new year with a different idea that will highlight five important ideas or facts about different subjects that I feel are important to community bankers (or maybe just important to me, who knows).
First of all, I must admit that I stole this idea from the Wall Street Journal who, from time to time, runs articles on “Five Things” ranging from interesting notes on that most revered pursuit of intellectual superiority known as the presidential race to reasons why J.J. Abrams had to kill off Han Solo (a development that I am still quite upset about). Luckily, my legal help is cheap, so if the Journal has a problem with me using their format, maybe it will all work out OK.
For my first article in the series, I plan to focus on five things I learned as a community banker that are still useful to me today. As a matter of fact, since they are so countercultural for many in my current profession of law, they may benefit me more now than they did when I was banking. Follow along and see how many of these traits community banking has conditioned into your character as well.
1. Always Call People Back As Soon As Possible
I know this one sounds simple, but you would be shocked to know (or maybe you wouldn’t) how many attorneys act like their voicemail doesn’t exist. Trying to get them to return a message is like trying to get your ten year old to give you change back after a trip to the concession stand; it just doesn’t happen. I’m not sure if they are scared of their phone, or if they are actually that busy, but either way, it is enough to drive you mad. Not that it is excusable, but I can somewhat see why they now refuse to return my calls since I am not their client but instead an attorney that is often representing an opposing viewpoint (even so, the undue delay does nothing but hinder their client’s interest). However, I am sad to say that I had the same experience when I was a community banker AND A CLIENT. Either most clients are much more patient than me, or those attorneys are so good it doesn’t matter. Regardless, community banking taught me that you must always return your phone calls. Not only does it prevent the bank down the street from fielding a subsequent call from that same person, but common sense tells you that it benefits you and your community reputation in the long run to respect the time and effort people put into trying to contact you. Since common sense is often in short supply in the legal world, maybe that is why bankers are just better at this.
2. No Job is Below Your Pay Grade
I must admit, one community banker comes to my mind as the embodiment of this lesson, and it is my father. Since I was a kid, I have watched him pick up paper in the parking lot of the bank while carrying the title of Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, a practice that he also exhibited several times while me, as his employee, failed to notice and walked right by the tootsie roll wrapper that he bent down to pick up. In the world of legal runners and billable hours, this just doesn’t happen unless it can be done for $235 per hour and itemized on some poor soul’s bill. However, I learned from my father that doing the small jobs that need to be done doesn’t just make you look more down to earth; it also places the needs of your organization above those of your own in order to make sure that it accomplishes its utmost potential. After all, as the organization rises, so do the prospects and aspirations of its members. Unless the organization prospers, though, the realized potential of the members making up that organization is limited by the weight of that underperforming organization. There are too many small jobs for the runners and administrative staff to do alone; some of them require non-billable hours now for a more profitable practice later.
3. Sometimes You Have to Wear More than One (Or Twenty) Hats
Don’t get me wrong, attorneys are great multi-taskers and are forced every day to juggle more than one file at a time. However, for some time now the phenomenon of professional specialization has taken a foothold within many law firms so that most attorneys limit themselves to one or two practice areas and rarely venture across the borders of those specialties for fear of having to touch base with their professional liability carrier. Community bankers, though, have never had that luxury. As a matter of fact, as regulation increases and the pool of qualified talent decreases, the thought of specialization is nothing more than a pipe dream for all community bankers, or at least those that want to survive the current super-competitive environment to fight another day. Truth be known, technology and competition is quickly changing the legal profession as well, and an obstinate adherence to strict specialization may not be possible for most attorneys much longer, either. Luckily, I had six years of community banking that taught me to wear more than just one hat.
4. People Don’t Really Care What You Know Until They Know You Care
It scares me sometimes to think about how many people I work with every day (both within my law firm and within other firms whose attorneys I work with on different issues) that have more impressive IQs and resumes than I do. As a profession that peddles knowledge, attorneys often place the highest premiums on intellectual talents while discounting bedside manner. However, while I was a community banker that tried to convince my attorneys that I just didn’t need that twenty-page memo regardless of how well it was researched, I realized that clients really can’t trust your knowledge until they can trust that you will use it in their best interest. The duty of loyalty to a client doesn’t just mean you put their needs above those of a third party; it also means that you must put their needs above those of your own, no matter how much you need billable hours or words of affirmation extolling your vast legal research skills. Unless your knowledge benefits your client, it is better to just keep it to yourself, especially when your hourly rate contains three digits.
5. Never Tell A Customer “That’s Not My Job”
While I was at the bank, there was a sweet old lady that would call me at least once a month to help her balance her check book. At first, this aggravated me. After all, my ego told me that I have a CPA and a law degree; surely such a menial task can be performed more efficiently by a customer service representative, or possibly even a teller. However, I later noticed that there were other customers that would walk into my dad’s office asking the same thing, and he never hesitated to help them out. I’m not talking about customers who were going to bring the bank a two million dollar loan from time to time. No, I’m talking about the 85 year old man that was trying to make sure his social security check would stretch until the end of the month. Eventually, it dawned on me that God gives us a calling for reasons other than to generate income in the most efficient manner; he also places us within a profession to help make the world a better place. Those who realize this don’t just earn a living, they also live out a calling that makes their work more rewarding. At the same time, that two million dollar loan customer is watching more often than not and takes notice of their character. Such character demands loyalty, and loyalty is always good for business.
So, there’s my list of the five most valuable things I learned as a community banker. I know for sure that it is not comprehensive, and there very well may be other more important lessons you have learned that I failed to mention. If so, please e-mail them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to learn from your experiences as well.
* This Newsletter is a publication of the Commercial Department of the law firm of Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes located in Jackson, Mississippi. This Newsletter is not designed or intended to provide legal or professional advice, as any such advice requires the consideration of the facts of the specific situation.
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