I cannot let April 2013 pass without remembering the person who had the most influence on me in choosing a career in the law. That person was my father, now deceased, who was the best role model I ever could have had of an ethical, dedicated, empathetic and effective lawyer. My books are dedicated to him, and he is part of everything that I do in Best Friends at the Bar. So, he not only affects me, but he affects you, my readers, and, for that, I consider you to be fortunate.
My Dad, Rex M. Smith, would have been 100 years old this month. Born in April 1913, he lived for almost 90 years, and he left big shoes to fill for those who came behind him. When he retired, after 50 years of practice, his professional colleagues, lawyers and judges, came from long distances to attend the bar association tribute to him. Although he had started as a sole practitioner during the Great Depression, when employment options were limited, over time he became a major influence in banking and financial services in his state of Wisconsin and the Midwest. However, no matter how successful he became, he never forgot who he was and how he got his start. He could be developing a sophisticated argument for a case in federal bankruptcy court at the same time that he was administering pro bono legal services to those in need. Truly, he was a remarkable man, who kept it all in perspective.
My Dad taught me so much—about lawyering and about life. Those lessons could fill a book, but here are some of the most important.
- Be ethical in all that you do; it is the thing that truly defines you as a lawyer. Dad’s law partner, who would become a federal judge, always referred to Dad respectfully as Barrister Smith. I interpreted that to mean that many lawyers are good legal technicians, like the solicitors in the UK, but that few reach the level of accomplishment that rewards them as barristers. I always believed that the distinction, where my Dad was concerned, had a lot to do with his ethical standards that he refused to compromise. As a child, I witnessed my Dad take the unpopular case to assure that the unpopular defendant had a lawyer. The repercussions on him and on his family from the members of the community often were harsh, but he took the high road and eventually prevailed in imposing his ethics on the legal process. Dad always believed that losing the battle might be necessary to winning the war;
- Never forget that you do not walk in another’s shoes. Keep in mind that what drives people in their decisions may not be understandable to you, but it is what matters to them. As a lawyer, you are not in service to make value judgments; you are in service to provide effective legal counsel;
- Use your legal talents to help the less fortunate. Dad was very active in his community, and he made sure that meritorious initiatives were advanced. He also did a lot of work on behalf of people who could not afford his fees, and he was wont to barter with those who could not pay but needed to preserve their pride. He took his children with him to the American Indian reservation near our home to provide free legal services, and we had some eye-opening experiences visiting people whose lives were as different from ours as we could ever imagine. The thing that always impressed me the most was that Dad treated those people in the same courteous and respectful way that he treated the members of the boards he served on. They had fallen out of luck, but they deserved to be treated with dignity, and he never forgot that or missed an opportunity to drive the notion home to his children;
- Have a passion for what you do in the law, but balance that passion with the needs and desires of the rest of your life. As dedicated as my Dad was to being the best lawyer he could be, he also had a personal life that included lots of family time, recreation and hobbies. He had important opportunities to join larger practices and increase his sphere of influence, but he chose what he referred to as “the good life.” The last conversation that I had with my Dad before he died included him telling me not to mourn his death because he had lived his life exactly the way he wanted to and had loved it all. What more can you ask; and
- Be the Master of Ceremonies for every event. You control the message and the laugh lines!
Yes, my Dad lived in another time and place. Law practice was different then, and it would be hard to replicate his experiences today. However, there is so much to learn from his experience, and I hope that you will find something in that experience to resonate in your own life. I know I have, and I also know how fortunate I was to have such a positive role model. So, in the spirit of Pay It Forward, I offer you some of the lessons I learned from a man who still informs my life as an attorney—-and always will.
Here’s to Rex M. Smith, my Dad and the finest lawyer I ever had the privilege to know.