“It’s sad, so sad
Why can’t we talk it over?
Ohh, it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word”
– Elton John
In the late 1960s, when I was in fifth through seventh grades, my best friend, Becky, lived a few houses away. I was a motherless child and she was my shepherd through the tumultuous years of early adolescence, helping me navigate childhood angst and the feelings of not belonging, not being cool, not fitting in. I don’t know how she did it, but she seemed to be filled with the wisdom of Yoda despite our identical ages.
In the terminology of the day, she was a “Tom Boy,” a girl who would prefer to play sports and get in the rough and tumble. A remarkable golfer, she taught me golf and how to caddy. She encouraged me to invent the sports board games I did, then would play with me for hours to make sure they provided the endless entertainment we hoped. What I remember most were our conversations – as if we had discovered our own magical wardrobe in our private Chronicles of Narnia. We discussed all the vexing issues of childhood: first crushes, the loss of a grandparent, our growing independence, the existence of God. She helped me fit into my budding teenage self-particularly challenging at a time when bell bottoms and long hair were the definition of cool and my father would permit neither.
If there is an apex of innocence, boundless transparency, and extreme honesty, it was those years and that friendship with Becky. When friends become family-you know that feeling. We find it seldom and when we do, it fills us. We understand and we are understood. It is peace in a tumultuous world.
As the years passed and we got into high school, our circle of friends changed, and while we always liked each other, we never did spend that kind of time together again. We went off to separate colleges and then she joined the Coast Guard. We lost touch. As far as I can remember, she never went to a high school reunion. But she always remained a warm memory. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footprints in your heart.”
It turned out that we shared everything except one secret. Becky wasn’t just a young Tom Boy. As she aged, she recognized her sexual preference and built a full life, but it wasn’t safe to come out during those years and certainly not in the military. Looking back, one of the reasons Becky and I were so close is that I had recognized in her a fellow outsider. In youth, readers, budding intellectuals, the sensitive, homosexuals (we didn’t have acronyms like LGBTQ back then), are the outsiders. We were fellow travelers in our un-coolness.
One day about 15 years ago I got a call at the office. It was Becky, only she had come out and her name was now Lee. We had not spoken in more than 25 years but we instantly bonded on the phone. She was in trouble and near her breaking point. She was going to lose her business; her home; her board positions; her ex-wife, with whom she remained close and shared a business interest; was going to lose her half of the business as well. Even the peacefulness of her home life and community were at stake.
As she explained the story, she said, “I have no idea what else to do, who else to turn to, but I’ve tried everything. And then this voice popped into my head and it said, ‘Call Richard. He will help.’” It’s not really important to this story what strategy we used with the media to turn this around, almost instantly, but it worked. Being a weekly columnist in a national business publication at the time certainly helped.
When people ask me, after all these decades, what the most rewarding moment in my career is, this story always pops into my mind. We have been honored to be at the crossroads of history so many times – Guantanamo Bay, AIG, the Catholic Church, January 6th, the Champlain Towers collapse, and on and on. I’m proud of every one of those moments when we have helped people in need and left a fingerprint on history. But the moment of pro bono service for an old friend – a friend who held my hand during a turbulent childhood – fills me.
Isn’t that what we are all looking for in life? That human connection that conquers time and distance? That knows no bounds? That has no secrets?
I was thinking about those human connections when I had Doug Wojcieszak, founder of Sorry Works! cohost my daily podcast, In House Warrior, for the Corporate Counsel Business Journal, recently. Doug lost his oldest brother to medical errors in 1998 and his family successfully sued the hospital and doctors, settling the case in 2000. The hospital attorneys – not the doctors – empathized with the family, but only after the case was settled and money exchanged hands. The doctors never did admit fault or apologize for the fatal errors.
From this tragedy, Doug built an international movement which is changing the equation of organizations dealing with adverse medical events and reducing litigation costs, time, and distress through the power of the apology. It turns out that overwhelmingly, people want to hear an honest apology, to be recognized as human, to know that the people responsible for the error understand their loss. While we spend our days endlessly chasing dollars, what we really want is to feel whole: to matter, to be recognized.
Joining us on the podcast was Jean Martin, a board-certified emergency physician and attorney who works in the legal department of COPIC, a leading medical liability insurance provider. She discusses how COPIC implemented a Sorry Works! program and how defense lawyers learned to stop fearing the program and came to embrace it. It moves hospitals and their lawyers away from the “Delay, deny and defend” approach and helps move them to “Doing what is right for the patient.”
It turns out that the Sorry Works! miracle of reducing medical liability in patient care may also have applicability in other sectors as well, even with loss of life. A little love and humility goes a long way.
As lawyers we are trained to win, but humanity and an apology have a power all their own.