A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of spending a few hours with the justices of our Supreme Court and Court of Appeals to talk about attorney well-being. It was a wonderful discussion. I left inspired by that group’s recognition that our emotional well-being—that ability to stop and be present to our lives—has a lot to do with how well we serve our clients and participate in this system of justice that is so important to our society.
During our discussion, Justice John Kittredge (who has been instrumental in the development of South Carolina’s Attorney Wellness Committee) told a story about his former barber and a life lesson he received while getting a haircut at the close of a busy day. It’s a beautiful story of what it looks like to be present to the moment and to those who share that moment with you.
I asked Justice Kittredge if he would be willing to allow me to share his story, and he agreed.
So, here it is–the story of Pee Wee the Barber:
Pee Wee was a WW II vet. He started cutting my hair when I was about 6, and he taught me many valuable lessons through the years. I want to share one lesson that I think made me a better trial judge. I had been on the family court bench for a year or two—it was around 1992—and it had been a long day, as we were going through more matters than I could count with the abuse and neglect docket. You know the drill–every case was a parade of excuses with parent after parent telling me all the reasons they couldn’t comply with their obligations and the treatment plan. I was tired. It had been a long week, and I just wanted to get through so I could get to the barbershop before it closed at 6. Well, I pushed the last several cases through quickly and made it to the barbershop just in time.
I was in my 30s, and by this time Pee Wee was not doing well. He was blind in one eye and could barely see out of his good eye. But Pee Wee remained very much in demand. There I was in my 30s, with an elderly barber who had been on his feet since 7 that morning. Pee Wee was not complaining. I started feeling ashamed of how I had rushed the last few cases.
As I took my seat in the barber chair, others entered the shop right at 6:00. Pee Wee smiled and said “Just be patient, I’ll be with you folks in a few minutes.” I started to get out of the chair, and Pee Wee put his hand on my shoulder, stopped me and asked where I was going. I told him he wouldn’t get out of his shop until late, and on top of that he had a 30 minute drive to his home in the southern part of Greenville County. I told Pee Wee I would come back another day. Pee Wee said, “John, don’t think about the others waiting; you’re in my chair, and you are the only customer I have right now.”
I never forgot that….many a time thereafter, in family or circuit court, there was a party who would see the number of cases remaining to be called—the courtroom and hallway full for contempts or guilty pleas—and the defendant would say “Judge, I wanted to explain my situation to you, but I see you don’t have the time.”
Oh yes I do have the time, sir. You are the only case I have right now. Your case is important to me, and I want to hear from you.
Remember the Pee Wee Rule. We all have things to do and places to be, but to that one litigant [or that one client] this one case may be the most important thing in his or her life.