Two little dried snot marks on my suit pants. Just above the right knee. That’s what I noticed in the seconds before the judge read the jury’s verdict aloud. I grinned inside at the thought of my toddler son tootling around the kitchen. I couldn’t pin point the exact moment when I let my guard down long enough for his snotty little nose to swipe my pants. But I was sure that he was the culprit.
I make it a habit to cross my legs and fold my hands in my lap as I wait. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m a little superstitious. I usually look down at my shoes in the final grueling seconds before the verdict is read. I’m always surprised by the details I notice. A scuffmark that looks like a dinosaur. Two slightly different shades of black socks. But up until that trial, I had never noticed snot marks on my suit pants. I could only hope that the jury hadn’t noticed them either.
It’s hard to explain the flood of thoughts that flow through a trial lawyer’s mind in the moments before a jury’s verdict is read aloud. Win or lose – the verdict is the culmination of years of hard work. Boxes of documents have been reviewed. Depositions have been analyzed. Thousands of facts have been committed to memory and meticulously woven together to form the fabric of the case. An injured client’s future often hangs in the balance.
The seriousness of the situation does not typically lend itself to thoughts of my son’s runny nose. But this time it did. And I’m glad. Those little snot marks taught me a valuable lesson that I hope I’m smart enough to remember, and brave enough to embrace, over the next 35 years of my career.
Our humanity – that ability to understand, connect, and empathize with people at a basic human level – is our most valuable professional asset. That simple little truth can become so blurred and distorted by the day-to-day realities of our professional lives.
We live in a world of constant connectivity. Smart phones, tablets, text messages, and emails allow – no require – us to remain in the trenches of our professional lives at virtually all times. We live in the worlds of our Inboxes and Outlook calendars. Microsoft and Apple products are the oxygen in these parallel professional worlds. We live in these worlds while we grocery shop. We live in them while we play with our kids. We live in them while we lay in bed at night with our spouses.
The Inbox and Outlook calendar worlds in which we live often remind me of the children’s movie, Wreck It Ralph. The entire movie is set inside of video games at an arcade. While the video game characters duke it out inside the games, children in the arcade file past the games and peer inside the screens. Despite the great struggle going on inside of the screens by the characters, life goes on for the “real” people on the outside. Sound familiar?
The problem with the parallel professional worlds in which we spend so much time, is that many are consumed by things, that if not properly checked, slowly eat away at our humanity. Conflict. Deadlines. Reports. Money. Bottom lines.
Every profession has their own jargon to describe the tasks and concepts that fill up our Inboxes and consume our lives. As we dive deeper into these worlds, we often lose perspective. We begin to confuse those things with the “real” things that are going on all around us. And worst of all, we can become so entrenched in those worlds, that we slowly begin to lose our humanity – that ability to understand, connect, and empathize with the “real” people all around us.
So my story ends where it began. The jury’s verdict came back in my client’s favor despite the snot marks on my suit pants. It was a win that provided my client with the relief that he desperately needed. I spent years and countless hours away from my family preparing that case for trial. Most of it was necessary. But I also wasted a lot of time in my own Inbox and Outlook calendar worlds. My presence in those worlds had no impact on the final outcome of that case. In fact, in many ways, the time I spent in those worlds actually worked against the eventual outcome.
In the end, after all of the hours were logged, and my preparation complete, the case came down to the connection between “real” people. The case was tried in the “real” world, not inside the Inbox and Outlook calendar worlds. Twelve “real” people decided that case.
Our families are our bridges back to humanity. I’ve found that the closer that I stay to humanity, the better off I am both personally and professionally. It has taken more time than it should, but I’ve come to understand that it’s okay to put my phone away and just be present. My simple presence in those important moments allows me to soak up little lessons in humanity that I can use to better represent my clients.
For me, the memory of my son’s snot marks on my suit pants serves as a reminder that our humanity is our most valuable professional asset. And when I’m smart enough and brave enough to put the gadgets away, buck the conventional wisdom, and embrace that fundamental truth, good things happen for my clients and my family.