My favorite television show of all time is “Scrubs” because of its perfect blend of humor and sensitivity. Each of the characters was multi-dimensional, silly and childish one minute, serious and dedicated to their patients the next. But one of the characters who appeared to be truly unsympathetic was the chief of medicine, Dr. Kelso. Ornery and infuriating, irritating and just plain mean, he was the typical bureaucratic administrator, the part of the medical profession we want to ignore, the part that has to treat the practice of medicine as a business, not founded in altruism but economics. And yet every day that I leave the office, I think of Dr. Kelso.
There was an episode in the 5th season of the show, episode 4 I think, in which the main character, J.D. (played by Zach Braff) tries to find something redeeming about Dr. Kelso in order to properly introduce him at an awards banquet. What he sees, though, incenses him. He notices that every day when Dr. Kelso leaves the hospital, as soon as his foot hits the pavement outside, he puts on a beaming smile and practically skips to his car. J.D. cannot figure it out and in fact confronts Dr. Kelso about this, accusing him of not caring, of being insensitive, and of being heartless. This is especially vexing to J.D. because Dr. Kelso had just turned away a patient of J.D.’s who didn’t have insurance.
But it is Dr. Kelso’s explanation for his good humor that sticks with me every day I leave the office. He explains to J.D. that if he were to take the stress and tension of his job and the hospital with him everyday, he wouldn’t be able to survive. He would go crazy, looking for an outlet and a way to relieve the anxiety that the hospital causes. So he has made himself the deal that he would leave the hospital inside its doors and as soon as he leaves for the day, he forgets about it until he comes back in the morning.
I have often said that being an attorney is what I do, not who I am. While I am at the office or in court or in meetings, the job is my focus; it is my only concern and I dedicate all of my energies and concentration to doing the absolute best I can for my clients. But once I leave the office and set foot on the steps outside its doors, I stop looking at myself as an attorney and leave the stress and tension within the office walls.
The problem is that we all have the potential for internalizing our client’s problems and matters and making them our own; stressing about work while in the car, at the gym, while playing with our kids, and interacting with our spouses. Keeping our stress inside and allowing the grind of work to pervade our every waking moment is not only unhealthy, it is relationship-crushing. We all admit that we are not ourselves when we are under pressure. We snap at people, we are anxious and on edge, and we feel as if no one in the world understands the pressure we are under.
Do you really want to interact with someone who is always like that?
Sure, there are going to be those sleepless nights worrying about the hearing the next morning, how the judge will rule, what the jury will decide, did I remember to send that email or maybe there is one more change to make to the agreement, but they don’t have to be all-consuming. They don’t have to define who we are. It’s the people who carry their hearts and inflated blood pressures on their sleeves that concern me because they are ticking time bombs just waiting to explode. I just don’t want to be there when the fuse reaches its end.
The other side of it, though, the human side, is my everlasting dread of missing something exceptional. Clients will come and go. Sure, we hope to positively impact their lives and provide them with service and satisfaction, but we don’t face them every day; our friends and family are a different story. If we take our work home with us every day, eventually our friends and family won’t be there waiting for us. One of my biggest fears is diving into work so forcefully and unconditionally that I come out of my fog 30 years later and find out that the best years of my life were spent staring at the walls of my office and worrying about clients and not my wife and kids. It’s not the life I want to lead.
So every day when I hit the sidewalk outside of my office, I think of Dr. Kelso and I smile and, with a lighter step, get in my car and look forward to an evening with my family, stress-free. It isn’t every night that I get to accomplish that goal, but I truly do my best. Otherwise, I won’t be Rob the husband and father of two wonderful girls, but will be Rob the attorney… does he have a family or are his files his family?