What We Do Matters: A Reminder from the Last Lecture

Everyday across the nation, hundreds of solos talk to their clients — breaking bad news, explaining how the law works or offering suggestions on how to handle a divorce or fight a trumped up criminal charges or save their home from foreclosure. Nothing precedent-setting or earthshattering, nothing as sexy or high profile as, for example, working on the goverment rescue of the mortgage industry.  But incredibly important nonetheless, as a passage from now deceased Professor Randy Pausch’s book The Last Lecture recently reminded me.

As you probably already know from this blog post or elsewhere, Randy_Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon who, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, delivered a moving last lecture on how to achieve your childhood dreams.  In his book, Pausch describes the moment that his doctor told Pausch and his wife that his cancer had returned and was fatal:

I felt incredibly impressed — awed really –  the way Dr. Wolff was giving the news [of the fatal diagnosis] to Jai [Pauch’s wife]. I though to myself: Look at how he’s doing this.  He’s obviously done this so many times before, and he’s still good at it.  He’s carefully rehearsed, and yet everything is still so heartfelt and spontaneous.  I took note of how the doctor rocked back in his chair and closed his eyes before answering a question, almost as if that was helping him think harder.  I watched the doctor’s body posture, the way he sat next to Jai.  I found myself almost detached from it all, thinking:  “He isn’t putting his arm around her shoulder.  I understand why.  That would be too presumptuous.  But he’s leaning in, his hand on her knee.  Boy, he’s good at this.

There was nothing Pausch’s doctor could do to alter the inevitable outcome — no treatment to recommend, no heroic surgery to suggest.  But what mattered just as much to Pausch at that moment wasn’t what the doctor could or couldn’t do, but how he delivered that news to Pausch’s wife.

Pausch’s insight reminds us that what we do as lawyers matters, whether we think it does or not.    The way we treat our clients, the tone in which we communicate with them, and the respect that we give to their problems which may be mundane to us but are hugely important to them — all of this makes a difference.  Most the problems that we solos see day to day won’t be resolved through creation of an important precedent that’s imprinted in some court reporter.  But every day, we leave our imprint on the human heart, in a way that counts so much more than we could ever realize.