Sunday, May 18, 2014

Reflections On Being a Lawyer

I am hesitant to write about the award I received Monday, even though I have been thinking about it a lot.  I suspect part of my hesitation is because we, especially we women, are supposed to be humble. But, at the risk of seeming hoyty-toyty or high-falutin' as my grandmothers would say, I am going to write about it anyway.

I have been so profoundly fortunate in my life.  I have wonderful kids and a devoted husband, I love my job and I was born after the Nazis were defeated in World War II.  Last week, I was one of three lawyers who received the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association's "Dean of the Trial Bar" award. The award has been given since 1985 and used to be called the "Litigator Emeritus" award.  In order to be eligible, a lawyer has to have practiced at least 30 years or be 60 years old.  I meet both of those requirements, 30 1/2 years in practice and I am 61 years old.  The other two recipients, Fred Walters and Larry Rouse, are amazing lawyers.  I am humbled to be in their company.  When I was a young lawyer, I remember the award given to lawyers of whom I was in awe.

Receiving this award was so profoundly gratifying and hubling.  Generally, I am hesitant to go to cocktail parties and lawyer functions because I usually feel vaguely out of place.  I follow my partners Marie Gockel and Kristi Kingston around because they are so much more socially adept than I am.  But this past weekend, I had a blast.  I finally understood why politicians run for office (outside of their wanting to dedicate their lives to public service, yada yada yada.)  Being the center of praise is quite intoxicating.  The people at the conference were my colleagues and some people I had known for years.  Wow, what a kick!

But, I discovered a more profound benefit than flattery alone and I am glad that I am not being simply superficial.  The other recipients and I met a few weeks ago to talk about what we wanted to impart. Since we are called the "deans", it is inherent that this award is imbued on those of us who have weathered some miles. We decided we wanted to say something meaningful for young lawyers.  While war stories are often funny, we hoped to be at least a little bit inspiring and avoid merely tooting our own horns.

I was touched by the stories of my colleagues and how we all agreed the most satisfying part of our jobs were when we helped others.  We talked about clients, who became our friends, and the positive impact of our representation.  We knew we had helped them and that we became a part of their lives.

However, what is probably the most profoundly satisfying aspect of this introspection is the realization that my clients have become a part of me. The other day a client of mine, whose case was over, told me that he and I have a connection for life.  It is true.  We do.  Helping someone regain themselves, their passions, their values, helps us regain those very same things in ourselves.

I am fortunate.  I never planned out what I was going to do in life.  It has all just fallen into place.  I did not start out as a civil rights lawyer, but when I started getting civil rights cases, I gravitated towards them.  I read a defense lawyer's biography and she claimed she wanted to help people who were victims of discrimination, but after only three years as a plaintiffs' lawyer she decided that her clients were all unworthy.  How sad.  While our firm is very selective in taking on clients, I cannot fathom rejecting fellow men and women who simply seek to be given a fair shake because they are unworthy of belief.  What we judge about others says more about who we are and less about the people we judge.  Ironically, I make this statement just as I am being judgmental about this lawyer.  Hmm, something for me to consider. We are all products of our experiences.  I suspect I am being way too hard on my colleague and I need to rethink my condemnation of her.

I am so thankful for my partners, our staff, our clients and our citizens' commitment to equality and fairness.  Man, I am so grateful for being selected for this award.  This award bestowed by colleagues, is more meaningful to me than any other.  It was like being recognized by a group of friends.  We were talking to young attorneys who hope this profession is more than just a paycheck and perhaps can even be a calling about which they will be proud.

Gandhi or King, or probably someone else said, "The arc of history is long, but it curves toward justice."  I believe that statement is true.  I also believe Lincoln (or maybe it was someone else) who said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and you can fool all of the people some of the time.  But, you can't fool all of the people all of the time."  So, while there is a lot of injustice in this world, we get it right most of the time, over time.  And I hope I am part of those trying to get it right most of the time.

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