Photo: Thrive Global

I became friends recently with a guy who grew up in Oxford, Ohio. Unsurprisingly, I told him about some of my experiences as a student there in the late 70’s. Which meant I told him how I met my wife while we both worked at the Burger Chef on High Street.

For younger readers, Burger Chef was kind of a McDonald’s wannabe. Instead of a Big Mac, Burger Chef sold a “Big Chef” — same two all- beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun” – just a different name. Sadly (or maybe not), the chain doesn’t exist anymore. But we are still married. So there’s that.

My friend found it funny that I worked there. And I suppose it was, especially as I recall my polyester uniform and the paper cap that shoved atop my curly mop of hair. And that wasn’t even the most ridiculous work attire I ever wore. I was a waiter for a while at a place called “Smuggler’s Inn” where I had to wear a puffy pirate shirt. It could have been worse – there was no parrot or eye patch. But I have to say, all of my part time experience in the restaurant was unbelievably valuable. And it helps me to this day.

That may seem like a strange comment for a lawyer. I am not routinely called upon to whip up a BLT for my clients. But there are other skills honed in kitchens and dining rooms. Such as? Working in a kitchen demands organization. If you’re going to need tomatoes during rush hour, you’d better slice a bunch of them in advance. If a ticket has an order for steak which takes 10 minutes to prepare and an order for fried chicken that takes 5 minutes, you better start the steak before the chicken. The point is any project requires coordination. In the legal world, and in the world of litigation, the process of putting a case together is a series of moving parts – and it’s critical to think through how to make them all sync. It’s not sliced tomatoes, but the concept is the same.

And of course the restaurant business is a service industry, which means it’s a people business. The best servers (even ones in puffy shirts) get a sense of what their customers want. They read moods and faces and make suggestions of menu items or specials. They pick up on facial expressions and eye contact. The best ones anticipate what their customers want, and more importantly what their customers need. And of course the legal industry is a service oriented, people business as well. Good lawyers need to read the moods and faces of judges and jurors. But more importantly we need to anticipate the needs and wants of our clients. Good restaurant servers and good lawyers are proactive.

And in my own case, the most important lesson I learned in any restaurant came in my first job. Without going into detail, I made a major mistake. And then, about an hour later, I did it again. The exact same idiotic thing. Had the owner of the restaurant been a better businessman, he would have fired me on the spot. Had I been his lawyer, I would have assured him he had cause. But he didn’t fire me. He gave me a another chance, and I like to think over time I rewarded his confidence. But the lesson of compassion and empathy was a gift that has made me a better person and better lawyer.

And that is surely food for thought.