How Lawyers Can Use Bad News to Encourage and Lead Their Staff

A Lawyer’s Story of Hope and Leadership

At first, it seemed like just another day.

When I got home from work in the summer of 1997, I mindlessly began talking about my day at work while oblivious to whether my wife was listening.  But something was a little different about my wife and I could just tell from the expression on my wife’s face that there was something that was not right.  Lisa just stood there and looked at me and finally when I stopped talking, she delivered the shocking news: my mother had been diagnosed with colon cancer.

Shocking News that Floored Me

My mother had been the picture of perfect health, worked out, ate right, and always took care of herself. Now, for the first time in my life, I was faced with the brutal reality that no child can ever be ready for—the mortality of the person who brought you into this world.

I called my mother that night and heard the fear in her voice as she faced the real prospect of a life cut short by cancer—a life that seemed to be destined for many more years was now on the brink.  On the phone with my mother that night, I heard the fear in her voice as we cried together. 

The medical plan was simple enough. A surgeon would operate to remove the tumor from my mother’s colon, biopsy the surrounding tissue and days later tell us whether the cancer had spread.  Whether my mother would live or die would not be known for days. And that night in my brownstone apartment in downtown Albany would turn out to be one of the most difficult days of my life.

My mind raced with bitter thoughts that night.  How could this happen?  Why would God take my mother from us when she had been so careful about taking care of herself?  My (future) kids might not meet their grandmother!

The Most Difficult Night of My Life

I just knew there was no way I could sleep that hot and humid summer night.  Filled with fear and anxiety I left my apartment to walk the streets of downtown Albany. I walked the streets looking for some consolation and hope, but the cobblestone streets offered nothing. The churches were locked up and closed up tight, and no friendly stranger was in my path to offer some small token of consolation. I was on my own that night.

When I got back to my apartment, I knew sleep would be an exercise in futility—this would be a long night of tossing and turning and envisioning a future without my mother.  Exhausted, my wife was asleep in our bedroom and I fended for myself on the couch in our living room.  I sat on the plaid couch consumed with fear and anxiety as the night dragged minute by minute into the early morning.

How Everything Changed in an Instant

It was well after midnight when, for what seemed like no reason at all, I just happened to spot a book on the bookshelf in our living room.  I got off the couch, grabbed the book off the shelf and randomly opened it to the middle of the book.  Right there on the first page I saw, my eyes focused on these words:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

For it is in giving that we receive, and

It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

As I read these words, I could almost feel the fear and anxiety drain out of my face and leave my body. Almost magically, I knew in that moment that God had a plan for my mother and whether that was life or death, who was I to question God’s will?  For the first time since I got the frightening news early that evening, I was completely at ease.

Maybe a bit hard to believe, but I know now that the words of Saint Francis were meant for my eyes that night.  A sleepless night turned into one of hope with the knowledge that, good or bad, God’s will would be done.  And it was up to me to be the source of hope and comfort (and possibly consolation) for my mother, sisters and father.

The Fateful Day Finally Arrives

Several days later my mother had the surgery and my mother, dad and sisters and I met with the surgeon to learn my mother’s fate. I could see the anxiety and fear etched in the faces of my sisters, father and mother, as we huddled together in a small room in the hospital, but almost amazingly, I was at ease and hopeful. I gave small words of hope and optimism to my family members knowing that God had a plan for my mother and we were just about to find out what that was.

When the surgeon finally gave us the fantastic news that the cancer had not spread, we all broke down into tears.  It was a collective sigh of relief for my family members after days of stress and worry. 

I knew then that my mother would make it and I would get the chance to share this beautiful person with my children (to be).  But in the end, it wasn’t this life or death news that relieved my worry-filled mind…it was a dusty, old book sitting on a book shelf that had the words of hope, consolation and comfort.

A Lesson in Hope and Leadership for Lawyers

It’s easy to forget that your staff takes their cue from the little things you do and say.  Especially when things aren’t going your way—maybe it’s the loss of a big case or a dry-run with your cash flow—your staff is looking to you for leadership.  I know, it’s a lot easier bitching and moaning and blaming your bad luck, but that’s not what leaders do.

A leader faces the brutal facts honestly and doesn’t run from problems.  But most importantly, a leader makes sure that his staff knows you will overcome your obstacles and they take their cues from your words, actions and even body language.  Leadership is a combination of realism about the problems facing your practice that is tempered by optimism that you will ultimately tackle the issues facing you.

Whenever I have a bad day and think the world is conspiring against me, I think of the words of Saint Francis...and suddenly the world doesn’t seem like such a bad place.