Five things I learned about legal communications from working in a hardware store
October 30, 2018
Over the course of 25 years working in the media—most of that in the legal and professional services space—I’ve acquired a fair amount of specialized knowledge. But although it has never been listed on my resume, the most valuable skills I use were learned on a different sort of job, working in a hardware store in Minneapolis in the 1980s.
My parents bought the shop when I was about five years old, and by the time I was seven or eight, I was earning 50 cents an hour dusting the shelves. By the time I was in junior high I worked behind the counter after school, making minimum wage and learning lessons that would serve me in ways I could never have anticipated.
It was the kind of a place that’s increasingly rare—a shop packed to the rafters with everything needed to maintain an old house. The neighborhood ranged from large, stately homes near the lakes to increasingly modest houses the closer you got to the highway. The store had a distinct smell—a mixture of burnt wood, engine oil and the wax-and-sawdust compound we spread over the floors each evening to keep the dust down as we swept up.
In the backroom shop we fixed everything from table lamps to bicycle tires. I learned how to cut and thread iron pipe, re-glaze windows and fix screen doors, but mostly I learned how to deal with people. All kinds of people, with all kinds of needs. Some of them were affable, others standoffish. Some had idle questions while others were in the throes of a crisis. Understanding how to read and respond to each person and their specific needs has proven the most valuable tool in my professional communications kit. These are both service businesses, after all, and it seems worthwhile to share a few of the lessons learned from this very different context.
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