Father Knows Best
Much to my son Jack’s considerable consternation, any and every time I felt compelled to dole out some fatherly wisdom, I would always end my sage counsel with the tag line: “Here endeth the lesson.” It’s what Sgt. Malone (Sean Connery) says to Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) in The Untouchables each time he tells him something worth remembering. For Jack, it was a verbal cue that he was free to stop pretending to listen and may, upon completion of the obligatory eye roll, resume his boyhood misadventures.
I doubt that I listened any harder to my father’s philosophical musings over the years than Jack did to mine. However, and likely because I have been listening almost forty years longer than he has, I actually remember and am able to pass along at least some of what my father knows best. Given the legal bent of this missive, I should probably focus on the pearls of his paternal sagacity that relate most directly to being a lawyer and leave out stuff like: “always eat your fat - it will make your hair lie down,” or “always give your fat to the dog - it will make his coat shine.” Not that such brilliant maxims aren’t useful (although I don’t know how I can have my fat and the dog eat it too, and I’ve never understood why the fat won’t make my hair shine and the dog’s coat lie down), but it’s probably best not to try and process so many deep thoughts all at once.
The first bit of legal career advice my father gave me was the last thing he said to me as I headed off to the Georgetown University Law Center. “There are two tricks to law school,” he said, “getting in and getting out. You got in - now get out.” A simple, gentle, and ultimately profound suggestion to approach law school as a process and not a competition; as the necessary means to the end of obtaining my “ticket” to practice law. The result was, as intended, to give me (a small over-achieving fish in a big over-achiever fishpond) the perspective necessary to give myself permission to relax and enjoy the experience. I did. And while I spent way more time in the Smithsonian than I did in the law library, I still got a very fine education and managed to graduate comfortably in the top 100% of my law school class.
Having achieved great success at law school (i.e. I got out), my father shared with me the not so secret formula for a successful legal career. “Show up early for work,” he told me, “and don’t leave until your desk is clear.” This sampler-worthy adage should be written in big bold print at the bottom of every law school diploma and law license. Maybe in Latin for added gravitas and lawyerliness. Translation: “work hard.” Being a lawyer is a profession, but it is also a craft. You learn the job on the job. You get better at it by doing it. The harder you work, the better you get. That’s why, as the saying goes, they call it “practice." Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does create mental muscle memory that over time makes good lawyering look so effortless because of the considerable effort that has gone into it.
If you want to avoid trouble with clients, colleagues and courts, then do as my father said and did, that is: “return every phone call every day.” An unreturned phone call, like an unanswered letter or e-mail, is a ticking time bomb. Ignore it at your peril. You will find the seven-digit code needed to defuse the device right there on your voice mail. Ignore it at your peril. Time spent reassuring a nervous client, victim, or witness that you are on their case, or speaking with opposing counsel about that case is time very well spent. The return on that investment is realized in the number of happy clients, victims, and witnesses (more), gray hairs (fewer), and bar complaints (none). More to his point for lawyers of my generation, lawyers of my father’s generation and temperament solved about the same number of problems on the telephone that we manage to create through e-mail. The best way to ensure that someone understands what you’re saying is to say it to them. Unlike an e-mail, which is devoid of tone, nuance and feeling, a telephone conversation is an actual conversation. E-mail may be a very efficient way to convey information, but it is a terrible way to communicate. Lawyers are in the communication business and the telephone is still one of the most important tools of the trade.
Arguably the most important thing my father ever said about practicing law was his admonition to “be nice to everybody, not just the people you think you have to be nice to.” I recognize that anybody who has to be told that they should be nice to people is probably not someone who will likely take that advice to heart. Not everybody is nice. I have heard lawyers talk to secretaries and clerks in a tone of voice that should be reserved for war criminals and anyone who has ever played or rooted for the Chicago Blackhawks (or whoever happens to be playing my beloved St. Louis Blues that day), and then turn around and greet a judge or fellow lawyer like a favorite (i.e. old, rich, and childless) uncle. Not good. Even if being nice wasn’t the right thing to do, it would still be the smart thing to do. The courthouse is run by secretaries and clerks. If you think they don’t keep a mental list of nice people who they are only too happy to help, and a second mental list of not so nice people who they are only too happy not to help, then you’re probably on that second list. They can and will (and probably should) make it harder for you than it would be if you weren’t such a jerk - and their Judge will back their play. Be that as it may, the larger point he was making to me, and that I have in turn tried to make to my son whenever the occasion presents itself, is that while people may want other people to think of them as smart, funny, good looking, successful, etc., the only thing that really matters, and the measure by which we will all ultimately be judged and remembered in the end, is simply how we treat other people. Here endeth the lesson.
My father was among the last of a generation of remarkable lawyers who set the bar for everyone called to the bar thereafter. He stated practicing law in 1961. He was admitted to practice in eleven states and the District of Columbia, and argued cases at all levels of the state and federal courts including the United States Supreme Court. He was known not only as a “lawyer’s lawyer” but as a “litigant’s lawyer,” for approaching each case as a problem to be solved - not a fight to be won. He was admired by his colleagues for his exhaustive preparation, keen intelligence, unrivaled wit, sartorial splendor, unwavering civility, and respect bordering on veneration for the important role that lawyers play in our society. His devotion to his chosen vocation drove him to become a leading advocate for the legal profession. He served as President of the Louisville Bar Association, President of the American Judicature Society, Chairman of the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation, and Chairman of the House of Delegates and President of the American Bar Association. He traveled the country and the world (including trailblazing visits to China and the U.S.S.R.) promoting the rule of law, equal access to the courts for the disenfranchised, juvenile justice, prison reform, and the preservation of an independent judiciary. He was recognized for his efforts with what he humbly described as “an obscene” number of awards, honors, and tributes.
Having greatly and gratefully benefitted as a young lawyer from mentorship by outstanding attorneys with years of experience, “Big Stan” paid this gift forward many times over by always making time for young lawyers wanting or needing advice, counsel, or just to hear a great story from a masterful storyteller in a beautiful expertly tailored suit.