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Dr. Barry Lang, 68; surgeon changed careers to practice law

After a quarter century of interrupted dinners, house calls, and the hard work of building a reputable surgical practice, Dr. Barry Lang exchanged a career in medicine for one in law simply because he had run out of things to learn about.

“He would never say he enjoyed it better; people always asked him that,” said his wife, Janet. “He had just done what he wanted to do as an orthopedic surgeon, and law was a whole new field.”

In a move that surprised many except those in his family, Dr. Lang went to law school, moved to Newton, and opened a medical malpractice law firm in Boston.

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“He loved learning and using what he learned,” his wife said. “If he had the chance to live longer, he would have changed careers again.”

Dr. Lang died Nov. 3 at his home in Newton of a gastrointestinal stromal tumor. He was 68 and had never retired. Even though he was in pain, Dr. Lang continued to work at his law firm until mid-September.

At the firm, Dr. Lang used his background in his previous career to be selective. With his medical knowledge, he was better able to choose potential clients who had legitimate malpractice cases.

“We didn’t have that reputation of being the evil malpractice lawyers,” said his son, Zachary of Newton, who practiced with Dr. Lang at the firm. “He wasn’t there to be mean to doctors or to make their lives miserable. He did not treat the person across from him as someone who was evil, but as a person who made a mistake.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Barry D. Lang grew up in the city’s Long Island suburbs, in Oceanside.

In 1962, while at Syracuse University, he met Janet Pollack in a chemistry class. They graduated in 1966 and married later that year.

The newlyweds stayed in Syracuse while Dr. Lang attended and graduated from what is now the State University of New York Upstate Medical University. When he graduated in 1970, they moved to Philadelphia so he could complete an orthopedic residency while serving in the Army Reserve during the Vietnam War.

“We lived there for five years,” his wife said. “And we ended up leaving with three children.”

The family moved to North Dartmouth so Dr. Lang could open a private practice in New Bedford, where he became known for his generous house calls and for even working out a barter system for patients who had no money for medical services.

“There were a lot of fishermen in New Bedford, so we ate a lot of good fish,” his wife said. “He was very dedicated to his patients; he was ready and on-call constantly. He was always thought of as an old-country doctor.”

As the health care field changed in the 1980s, Dr. Lang felt he could not practice medicine the way he wanted to, his wife said.

Inspired by his oldest daughter attending college, Dr. Lang enrolled in Southern New England School of Law in 1989, taking classes on nights and weekends as he continued his surgical practice.

“He went with no intention of practicing law,” his wife said. “He went to school just as an academic endeavor. He then decided he had done everything he wanted to do in medicine, and decided to switch careers.”

When he completed his law degree, Dr. Lang worked as a doctor and lawyer for a while. After struggling to find work with insurance companies defending doctors, he asked his wife if they could move to Newton so he could open a law firm and represent patients. The move also brought them closer to a newly born granddaughter.

“Barry did a lot; I never told him no,” his wife said, adding that Dr. Lang was a bit of a daredevil in his free time. A pilot, he practiced aerobatics and tried parachuting.

Dr. Lang and his son ran the law firm together with one paralegal. Many were surprised that they did not have a secretary and answered phone calls themselves. Despite the amount of work, Dr. Lang enjoyed the simplicity of having fewer people around, since that meant everyone was responsible for knowing everything that was going on in the office.

His wife also noticed that he was more relaxed because he no longer was called out at night or during dinners.

“It was a nicer, easier life than all those years of surgery,” she said.

Dr. Lang also spoke six languages, including Swahili, which he learned for a trip to Tanzania prior to opening the firm for Zachary’s college graduation.

“He said, ‘If I’m going to go to their country, I’m going to learn the language,’ ” said Zachary, adding that his father easily retained fluency in languages and had studied Hebrew for a trip to Israel.

“He didn’t have a bucket list,” Zachary said. “He lived his bucket list.”

A service has been held for Dr. Lang, who in addition to his wife and son leaves two daughters, Kiran Milunsky of Newton and Brittany Smith of Brunswick, Maine; two brothers, Vaughn and Martin; and three grandchildren.

Proud of his faith, Dr. Lang started seriously studying Judaism as he got older, eventually joining a weekly Torah study group.

“His enthusiasm and passion was felt by everyone in the group,” said Rabbi Yisroel Freeman of the Chabad Jewish Center of Sudbury. “He really connected with his heritage and spirituality. He was an inspiring person to me. Even during his difficult moments, his drive for learning continued.”

Dr. Lang’s visit to Israel in 2010 was his last trip before being diagnosed with cancer in early 2011.

“He could have been a very sick man who did nothing in those 2½ years,” his wife said, “but he chose to keep living, moving, doing.”

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