New Year, New Attitude: Teaching Students to Practice Gratitude

By: Jennifer Richwine with an introduction and contributions by Professor Abigail Perdue

The new year is the perfect time to consider fresh ways to foster the formation of a healthy professional identity in law students. So I invited my esteemed colleague and friend, Jennifer Richwine, author of With Gratitude: The Power of a Thank You Note, to share her insights regarding the importance of teaching law students to practice gratitude. As a result of my insightful conversations with Jennifer through the years about the importance of saying thank you in the professional world, I devoted a section of my book, The All-Inclusive Guide to Judicial Clerking, to the importance of expressing gratitude to recommenders, mentors, and judges when applying for clerkships. I also included a sample thank you note. Now Jennifer has generously agreed to share her observations with, and in keeping with her topic, we are so grateful. Thank you Jennifer!


Several weeks ago I attended a dinner where there was a planned theme for the dinner conversation. The moderator of the dinner asked those around the table to think about character and leadership. Many times we only think or talk about character and leadership when there is a measurable absence of either or both qualities. Instead, this time, we were asked to share with our dinner companions a time when we had witnessed someone displaying clear character or leadership in a positive way.

One companion in particular caught my attention when he told a story of his boss at a leading consulting company. Just that weekend his team was launching a new initiative that was dominating all of their time and many hours beyond normal. In the midst of the frenzy and chaos, he witnessed his boss writing handwritten thank you notes to every single person on her team because she wanted them to know how much she appreciated their work and that it mattered both to her and to the company.

The person who mentioned this was a male twenty-something likely brought up on electronics and social media and part of a generation that seems to heavily value immediate, virtual interaction. But his boss’s act moved him because it demonstrated that she ultimately valued her colleagues and her relationships with them more than the bottom line.

The dinner conversation then turned to why it seems that character and leadership are often missing in today’s professional world. Our group concluded that one of the reasons is the great emphasis placed on efficiency and billable hours rather than on building relationships. But that was not true for this young man, and it is often not true for many of us. We are quickly approaching a time when sharing gratitude and a handwritten note will become increasingly valuable – in part because practicing gratitude in this way is so rare.

Attorneys and law firms are certainly tied to the notion of billable hours and efficiency and the bottom line. And that’s all fine – but is it enough? Are legal employers promoting a culture of character and leadership if they frown upon employees taking the time to express gratitude or write a handwritten note to a colleague or partner or client? Is the fact that we cannot calculate the monetary value of a thank you note enough to say it is not important?

A friend of mine recently endured a long and complicated battle with cancer, which she thankfully beat. After she was declared cancer free, she received a note from her doctor telling her how much he enjoyed having her as a patient, that her courage was inspiring, her sense of humor contagious, and that he would miss her visits. Can you even begin to imagine what that note meant to my friend? She observed, “I should have written him! I should have thanked him for saving my life! But he wrote me, and it’s changed my whole perspective on myself and what I have to offer the world.” Doctors do not get credit for thank you notes. They do not get paid for any time they take to write them. But this doctor did it anyway, and it made all the difference to my friend.

Lawyers often get a bad rap, and there are way too many bad jokes about attorneys. There are countless ways to try to change this perspective, but I want to promote just one: handwritten thank you notes. What if an attorney was known for the notes she wrote to her clients after a case was won or lost? What if an attorney was known for writing notes to his colleagues who did his research or prepared his briefings? What if law firms gave employees two professional development hours a week, or even just one, to write notes to people in their sphere for whom they are grateful, such as clients and mentors?

Maybe it does not start with law firms. Maybe teaching attorneys-in-progress the importance of demonstrating gratitude begins in law schools. What if law school professional development courses taught students the value of writing thank you notes? If we teach aspiring attorneys the value of kindness and gratitude in leadership and to write thank you notes often and well, then perhaps gratitude will become a core aspect of their professional identity, and they will take this culture of gratitude with them into their new professions.

It is a new year, and many of us are yearning for positive words and thoughts and deeds. A thank you note will not change the world, but it might change the world for someone.





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