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Opinion

Column: Learning Matters: Appreciating the lessons from an exceptional boss

In 1976, as a western civilization major at UC Santa Cruz, I was finishing my senior thesis on Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” when I spotted a notice in the college office, announcing a new paralegal program at the University of San Diego.

With no clear after-college plans, I told myself the three-month graduate certificate program was a logical extension of my foray into 18th century property law, not to mention a path toward interesting employment, so I applied. A few months later, civil litigation certificate in hand, I sat in the lobby of Seltzer Caplan Wilkins & McMahon, a San Diego law firm, awaiting my interview with Gerald L. McMahon.

Jerry McMahon — “GLM” to me — died last Christmas Eve, a year after the stroke that put an end to his 54-year law career. My husband and I drove to La Jolla last week for his memorial service. No way did I want to miss the gathering for the man with whom I was so lucky to work as a young adult.

Not only was GLM an exceptional attorney, he was a great boss. Since the day he hired me, and 38 years since I left the firm to marry and move to Glendale, I’ve been thankful for the opportunity I had to work alongside a man whose skills and habits became legend in San Diego and beyond.

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More recently, with a focus on career education, I’ve thought anew about the value of really good work experience. If I taught a career preparation class, I’d start with lessons I learned in that job. If I were a boss, I’d try to be like GLM.

First lesson: Where you go to school and how well you do there makes a difference, but you don’t have to go to Harvard or Stanford. I got the interview because I’d done well at the school from which the firm customarily hired. GLM had graduated summa cum laude from the University of San Diego’s law school after graduating from the University of Southern California as the top graduating senior and serving three years as a Navy pilot aboard the USS Hornet.

I learned in the interview the importance of considering one’s fit with a company’s culture. It wasn’t just his judgment that mattered to him; he asked me to consider my own. Noting my affiliation with UC Santa Cruz, a school with a liberal reputation, he asked if I’d be comfortable working on behalf of “landlords rather than tenants, farmers rather than farmworkers.”

In one of the better on-the-spot answers of my life, I replied, “I think I’ll be fine, so long as I respect the work we’re doing and the people with whom I’m working.”

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The next week, I happily walked to my new job, only to find myself unexpectedly handling the desk — and bewildering phone — of GLM’s secretary, who’d just been injured in a car accident. The fact that he didn’t fire me after the first two botched phone calls was a lesson in grace: an unmerited gift of patience. The fact that I didn’t complain about doing a job I didn’t apply for likely didn’t hurt my probationary period either.

Working at that desk for my first two weeks gave me valuable insight into how the office operated, how he managed his time and how he worked. I learned to take accurate messages and confidently assure callers he would get back to them by day’s end. He was faithful in returning those calls. I’d see him on his phone at lunch and at the end of every day, a practice that kept his clients happy and saved him from days of continuous interruption.

He also worked a lot. If he wasn’t in court or meeting elsewhere with a client, he was in the office from 8 a.m. until he went home to dinner close to 6 p.m. He was at the office most Saturday mornings, too.

It didn’t take me long to appreciate the talents of a really good editor and writer. I can still see his sympathetic smile as his red pen swept through a line of my first case summary. “No passive voice,” he instructed, as he pointed to the little style guide he kept on his shelf. He insisted on accuracy, clarity and adherence to legal procedure.

I still have the note I wrote in 1979: “GLM says — three parts to a motion: (1) what you’re asking; (2) legal grounds; (3) documents on which [the motion is] based.” I referenced that note a few times in my years on the school board, when we were wrestling with difficult issues.

I could say a lot more about lessons learned, but I’ll close with a note I received from my friend and former colleague Marie, who reported to GLM’s partner, Bob Caplan.

“I remember one time when a client was standing in front of my desk shouting at me because of some perceived lack of attention by Bob Caplan,” according to the note. “Jerry McMahon came out from his office a few doors down and read our client the riot act. He was a very important client, but that didn’t stop McMahon from defending Caplan and me. I’ll never forget what he did.”

In this era of “me, too” stories of workplace bullying and disrespect, we were lucky to know how it felt to be respected and protected by an employer.

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I hope in a future column to write about the unusual path that took the 9-year-old Jerry McMahon from Youngstown, Ohio, to Los Angeles, “in the shadow of Temple Hospital” as he put it, and from there to the home of a wealthy Glendale couple willing to pay for a live-in companion for their son. That part of GLM’s remarkable story reads more like “Great Expectations” than Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall.”

Joylene Wagner is a past member of the Glendale Unified school board, from 2005 to 2013, and currently serves on the boards of Glendale Educational Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. Email her at jkate4400@aol.com.


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