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Lessons of My Father

Red BatMy father’s red, wooden bat stands propped up in one corner of my office. He died on April 1, 2007, but I still think of it as his. The paint is faded and it is on the verge of splintering in spots. By today’s standards, it is toothpick thin – almost like a toy.

It was gigantic to me 40 years ago.

I keep my father’s bat to remind me of two of my father’s most important lessons – one good, one bad. I’m not sure he intended to teach either one. He certainly wasn’t conscious of it if he did. It doesn’t matter, though – what he intended to teach. I learned them just the same…and they shape how I have built this law firm and relate to the people in it.

Lesson #1: The Importance of Balance

Every Sunday morning, spring through summer, my Dad would play softball on one of the fields behind my elementary school. My sister and I would walk up to the school at about eleven o’clock, as his game would be winding down. We’d watch the last few pitches and then, after his friends had left, he’d play ball with us. Then we’d walk home for lunch.

It was all as unhurried as it sounds.

My father was a lawyer and he ran his own firm. At its height, it was a 4 employee operation, but more typically it was just my father and a secretary. If work didn’t get done, he didn’t get paid. And there was no one but my father to do it.

But still, we went to Ocean City for vacation just about every year, he came home for dinner with the family, and played unhurried softball with his friends and with his children. My father knew the importance of balance.

I cherish those Sunday mornings, and their memory reminds me that I cannot let my practice become all that I am. They remind me that time with my family cannot become a stepchild to the demands of my business. And regardless of the pressure of retirement, saving for college, and a thousand other life expenses, they remind me that my firm will never cause me or anyone associated with it to become a six plus day per week, 2,000 billable-hour slave.

Lesson #2: The Importance of Planning

As I mentioned, my father died on April 1, 2007. Shortly afterward, I found myself going through paperwork from his practice, trying to tie up the loose ends of his business. Among them, I found an Engagement Letter dated March 1, 2007. He signed up a new client exactly a month before he died. He was already pretty far gone with leukemia by that time, and all but the most fervent deniers would have acknowledged that he faced the coming end of his life. And still he was working to sign up another client.

Why would he do that?

Some would say that he loved what he did and to give it up would mean…well…giving up. But that’s not the real reason. The real reason was that he did not feel financially secure enough to cut the strings to his business. He was 74 and, if he survived, would not have had the financial stability to retire. He had to keep working until almost literally on his death bed.

Ira J. Wagonheim was a great father, but a poor planner. And here, I refuse to follow his lead. He never stopped to envision his future and work his way backward to figure out exactly what he had to do this year, next year, and the year after that in order to attain his goal. I keep his red bat to remind me that relaxation is not just something to squeeze in on a Sunday morning, but that it is also something to work toward in a retirement my father never took the time to envision.

My financial planner knows the lessons of the red bat. So too does my accountant and each one of my employees.

Now you know them too.