Robert Lang, a 68-year-old lawyer at the American Bar Association, has over the course of his career served clients facing immigration crises and domestic violence, among other issues. It’s stressful work, and in order to avoid burnout, Lang has set aside time for what he calls his “adventure” periods: He’s worked as a hospitality manager in the Virgin Islands and a teacher in Los Angeles.
But Lang says it was his first job, working as a firefighter throughout college and law school, that taught him the most about compassion, grief, and advocating for others. Now, Lang says that mentoring young lawyers and interns is the highlight of his job, and his firefighting days influence the way he goes about that. I spoke with Lang about his work relationships for The Atlantic’s series “On the Shoulders of Giants.” The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Elisha Brown: What lessons did you learn from your work as a firefighter, and how do those lessons influence how you work with others?
Robert Lang: I left with post-traumatic stress because of kids I couldn’t save. It involved hallucinations, panic attacks, insomnia, and nightmares. I was suicidal. The lessons I learned from the fire department, and the key thing I apply to mentoring, is that we’re not guaranteed any time on Earth. When I start working with interns, at the beginning I tell them that we have very little time together, and we have to treat every day as if it was precious.