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What A Cancer Diagnosis Reminded Me About Professionalism

There’s an old saying among trial lawyers that 'Tough cases make great lawyers.' It came to mind during a recent visit to the doctor.

My doctor-let’s call him Doug- walked into his office where my wife and I were already seated. His silver hair and crisp white lab coat were straight out of a daytime soap. Doug got right to it. 'Hi guys,' he began, ‘the biopsy results confirm Mark has prostate cancer. Let’s go through what that means here, analyze some key data points, and review the options. I know you have undoubtedly read up on this and have lots of questions. Please let me give you the full picture and afterwards ask anything you like. Then we can discuss my recommendations. I encourage you to get a second or third opinion and will gladly provide some names. We should agree on our course of action within the next ten days or so. I’m confident Mark will be fine.’

I was impressed by Doug’s opening statement. It was direct, matter-of-fact, and delivered in a calm, confident manner. Doug maintained steady eye contact, and leaned in when he said, ‘I’m confident Mark will be fine.’ It reminded me of when I delivered opening statements at trial. Each one of the nearly one hundred I had given began the same way: ‘This is a case about (one word fill-in-the-blank).’ I would maintain eye contact with the jury or judge and speak in a calm, assertive voice. The parallels to my experience made me comfortable with Doug and got me past the word 'cancer.' I realized that tough cases make great doctors, too.

Doug took us through the biopsy and pathology report, a battery of test results, and his clinical observations. There was lots of information to process, and Doug cogently synthesized everything, ensuring with his calm gaze that we were following the narrative. Twenty minutes into his overview of my disease, we had a clear picture. Doug covered all thirteen questions I had prepared in advance-another good sign. He reviewed treatment options from a statistical perspective, laying out pros and cons. Then he applied each one to my case-reviewing its impact on my lifestyle. This was similar to when, as I lawyer, I would fashion a case strategy based on client objectives.

We tentatively agreed to surgery, in part because Doug had performed 2,400 procedures without any significant complications. ‘Of course with surgery you never know exactly what you’ll be dealing with until you get into it. So no guarantees,’ he said. Then he added, ‘I’m confident of a good result here.’ Déjà vu set in again; Doug could have been me speaking with a client shortly before the start of a trial. It was comforting.

Doug encouraged us to confer with a radiologist to evaluate that option more comprehensively. While he made a strong case for surgery, he acknowledged his bias. That’s another characteristic of a professional—not bullying the patient/client into a single approach when options exist. Doug noted that no two patients are the same, even when confronted by the same disease and characteristics. The optimal course of treatment and a good result is dependent upon a host of variables associated with the patient. Doug went beyond statistics and related them to my situation, making it clear that I was not a statistic but a patient with a problem. I was again reassured because his approach mirrored mine as a practicing lawyer. I might have had a similar case before, but no two clients were the same. Understanding that—and the client’s objectives—is critical. The meeting with Doug was a trip—albeit a surreal one-- down memory lane.

There Are Common Traits Among Professionals Across Different Fields

The meeting with Doug caused me to reflect upon what a professional is and the traits good ones seem to share. This extends beyond rigorous academic training and licensure and adherence to ethical codes of conduct. Professionals solve problems. Experience, a continuous course of learning and professional growth, and a host of other life and professional experiences—notably developing client skills—enable them to be effective.

Top professionals tend to be direct, concise, and exude competence. They quickly get to the crux and avoid hyperbole. They know the difference between excellence and braggadocio. Professionals are just as adept at delivering bad news as good. They exude confidence but rarely lapse into cockiness. They relate data to an individual client. They are not all things to all clients and understand the limits of their expertise. Professionals meld knowledge with experience-- improvising when necessary. Their experience enables them to identify patterns, but they are not formulaic in problem solving. Professionals know the client--especially that client's objectives and risk profile. Professionals never stop learning, nor do they check their humanity at the door when they come to work. Their mission is to help people in distress to solve problems. Professionals learn from every problem—those they solve and those they don't. They are something more than the sum total of their education, practice experience, and passion.

Professionals understand that results are tied to variables they cannot always control and, so, offer no guarantees. Professionals instill client confidence by demonstrating competence, calm, candor, good communication, and collaboration. The collaboration is not only with clients but also with professional colleagues, staff, and others. It’s a team effort. Second opinions are not affronts because achieving the best result for the client is paramount. For professionals, it's about the client, not themselves.


Tough cases make great professionals. My late father, himself an eminent professional, once told me that, ‘a pro can spot a pro quickly—no matter the field.’ Now I understand what he meant. And when you are the one with the problem, being in the hands of a pro is immensely comforting. I have learned that’s half the battle.

Author's note: My weekly column will be suspended for a few weeks during treatment and convalescence. Doug knows that the pressure is on, even if readers don't mind the hiatus.


We wish Mark and his Family all the best and hope for a quick recovery.

Joek Peters CEO iGrowthLegal | LegalBusinessWorld

This article is also published on Mark's Contributors Page at

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