During the course of forty-seven-year career, Thomas A. Russo, MBA '69, JD '69, has been called a "Legend in Law," one of the "100 Most Influential Lawyers in America," and "the most innovative general counsel in North America." In the MacDonald Moot Court Room on November 4, Eduardo Peñalver described him as one of Cornell Law's most successful and interesting alumni, which made Russo the perfect choice to inaugurate the Dean's Distinguished Lecture Series with a talk on "The Ingredients for Success."
“In our most successful alumni, we often see careers that have taken winding, unpredictable paths, and Tom is no exception,” said Peñalver, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law, noting Russo’s years at the Securities and Exchange Commission; Commodity Future Trading Commission; Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft; the Brady Commission; Lehman Brothers; and AIG, where he recently retired as executive vice president and general counsel. “As a lawyer, regulator, and academic, he’s really run the gamut between the public sector and private service, but more than that, he’s managed to achieve an incredible balance of work, family, and philanthropy.”
Over the same years, Russo has steadily refined his speech on the ingredients of success, which started at two pages when he first presented it to a group of Cadwalader recruits and has since grown to seven pages. “One of the things I learned a long time ago is that service applies to any aspect of anything you do,” said Russo. “It’s putting someone else first. Understanding that will make you happier and will help you accomplish a lot more. When I was a young associate, I knew my job was to leave my ego at the door and be of service to the client. And over time, I realized that applies to everything we do. Service goes to a fundamental way of treating people the way you’d like to be treated.”
Other lessons followed, outlined in fifteen main points to cover any definition of success, either professional or personal: That time is relative, so two people can spend the same minute looking at the same thing but emerge with two completely different experiences. That time is absolute, so when people agree to meet with you, to talk to you, to work with you, they’ve given you something irreplaceable. That time is finite, so the people who learn to allocate their resources more effectively will have the greater chance of being successful.
For Russo, the key is to imagine yourself at some point in the future, writing your retirement speech, and searching for the words to describe what was most important in your life and career. When that day comes, what will you say? What’s mattered most?
“You need to decide what success in life means to you,” said Russo, with a nod toward the family members in attendance. “Without knowing your destination, it’s hard to know if what you’re doing will get you, well . . . anywhere. Think about what’s going to make you happiest. Then live a life that will get you there.”