A Poolside Lesson

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Browsing through some older copies of Missouri Lawyers Weekly, I came across an essay of mine from a few years ago on a subject that many of us struggle with, namely, how to find a balance between your work and your life. Re-reading it brought back the vivid memories that had inspired the essay, and reminded me again how important it is for each of us to find that balance before it’s too late. Here is the text of that essay:

There’s a saying that no lawyer on his deathbed ever wished he’d billed more hours. I wonder, though, how many lawyers on their death beds wish they’d billed fewer hours. You don’t want to be that lawyer. You don’t want to look back with regret over that canceled family vacation, those missed concerts, that romantic trip to the Greek Isles you kept promising your partner, those guitar or baking lessons you kept meaning to take, or any of the other experiences you missed on that one-way ticket called life.

I learned that lesson as a young associate in Chicago. I learned it in the most vivid way imaginable. Indeed, if I tried to put that experience into a novel, my editor would delete it as way too contrived. But it happened, and it haunts me to this day.

I had traveled to Atlanta with a partner in the law firm. Let’s call him Mr. P. He was to argue the federal appeal of an antitrust case I’d worked on with him. Mr. P. was a legendary workaholic — at the office late most nights, billed close to 2,800 hours a year, traveled on the road on business three weeks a month. The oral argument ended at 10:30 that morning, and we were booked on a 5 p.m. flight back to O’Hare.

Having traveled with Mr. P. before, I knew the drill: cab to the airport, try to book an earlier flight, and then off to the American Airlines Admirals Club so he could dictate letters and make calls. But as I stepped to the curb to flag a cab, he said, “Wait.”

I turned, curious.

He had an odd smile. “It’s a beautiful day,” he said, glancing up at the bright blue sky. “Let’s go back to the hotel. They’ve got an outdoor pool and restaurant. We can have a nice lunch, sit by the pool, maybe take a dip, just take it easy.”

Stunned, I mumbled something about not having a swimsuit. He told me he was sure we could buy two pairs in the hotel lobby. And we did. We had lunch out by the pool and lolled around until it was time to change and head to the airport. I only wished I’d brought a camera, since no one at the firm would believe that I’d spent the day poolside with Mr. P.

On the flight back to Chicago, he told me that he’d had a revelation as he left the courthouse that morning. “I’ve traveled around the world on business,” he said. “I’ve been in every major capital in Europe and Asia. And on all those trips I never took any time off. I’ve been to Paris five times and never been to the Louvre. I spent two weeks on a deal in Beijing and never even saw the Great Wall.” He shook his head. “No more. Life is too short. You need to take time to stop and smell the roses.”

Back at O’Hare, as we said our goodbyes at the cab stand, he reminded me of the conference call with the client the next day at 2 p.m. to discuss the oral argument. “Let’s meet in my office at one,” he said as he climbed in the waiting cab. “We can go over our notes.”

I watched his cab pull away, still amazed at our afternoon. I never saw him again.

According to the receptionist, he arrived at the office the next morning at 7 a.m. As usual, he worked with his door closed. At around 11 that morning, another lawyer knocked on his door and, hearing no answer, opened it. There on the carpet, face down, eyes open, was Mr. P. The autopsy revealed he died of a heart attack.

Many years later in St. Louis, I received a reminder of that lesson. My teacher was a teenage boy from Bilbao, Spain. He was an exchange student who spent a month with our family, a delightful boy of 16. At the end of his stay, I asked him if he’d noticed any major differences between life in the United States and life in Spain.

He thought about it for a moment and said he’d noticed two. The first was that in America many people ate alone in their cars, at their desks or in front of their TV.

“In my country,” he said, “most people eat together around a table.”

And the second difference? I asked.

He paused, trying to find the right words. “In your country,” he said, “people live to work. In my country, people work to live.”

Work to live. Not a bad credo.

What do you think?

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  • John rosenthal
    December 16, 2016

    Thanks Mike. That really puts things in perspective. Nobody knows what tomorrow will bring.

    • Michael Kahn
      December 16, 2016

      I couldn’t agree more, John. While it’s virtually impossible to live each day as if it were your last–since you would quickly go insane–it’s so important to keep your life in balance, since the only thing we all know for certain is that we won’t be here forever.

    December 19, 2016

    Excellent! I didn’t know that you were that smart!