Volume 20, Number 3
April/May 2003


Taking Risks

By Karen J. Mathis

Risk. It's an interesting concept. There are all sorts of ways to use the word "risk," with both positive and negative connotations. A risk taker is either a heroic figure or a reckless cad, depending upon the situation and a person's perspective. We speak about "risk-benefit analysis" as though we can standardize how high or low the level of risk might be. Actuaries and statisticians throw the word around, quantifying risk with particular aplomb. Parents caution their young against taking unnecessary risks.

So why is an entire issue of GPSolo devoted to the concept of risk? As you work your way through this issue, you will see that risk is not a foreign concept to attorneys or their clients. Almost everything in life involves risk, and quite often that risk turns into liability, damages, perhaps even a lawsuit and a judgment. Limiting risk, or at least advising a client regarding the existence of risks, is a large part of what general practitioners, solos, and small firm lawyers do. In this issue our editorial board, authors, and staff alert you to a number of these minefields and offer ideas, checklists, and proven steps to recognize risks and then manage them. I think you will find it a fascinating read.

For a few minutes let's look at heroic risk, because each day lawyers are taking risks that make them heroes. John Adams was implored not to represent the redcoats charged with killing colonial patriots in Boston. Adams was already known as one of the best legal advocates in the Bay Colony and certainly did not need the notoriety or risk such representation would produce. We all know the end to the story: Adams represented the British soldiers, and they were acquitted.

Take another example, the modern-day story of Brian Hermanson, a Section member from Ponca City, Oklahoma. Brian is a very good lawyer and was in a solo practice. Then Brian was appointed by the Oklahoma courts to represent accused Oklahoma City bomber accomplice, Terry Nichols. Defending the accused and serving as effective counsel for the derided, scorned, and hated is a risky thing to do. Whatever your feelings regarding Nichols, you should join in thanking Brian for taking this risk, for putting his personal safety and his economic well-being on the line, and for defending the U.S. Constitution by providing a competent defense to one accused of horrendous crimes.

On September 11, 2001, attorneys at the New York Port Authority and at the law firm of Holland & Knight, to name just two, put their lives at risk doing their jobs. Perhaps they didn't expect the day to be any different from those before it. Yet by noon many had lost their lives to the risk and reality of terrorism. Lawyers, like many others, risked their own lives to save those in the World Trade Center and its surrounding buildings. They looked risk in the eye and stared it down. They are heroes.

As this issue goes to press, our nation has just entered into war with Iraq; we can only imagine the risks our soldiers, sailors, and pilots will face. When you think about risk, do you think about Section members such as Lieutenant Benes Aldana and Major James M. Durant III, JAG officers who may soon be on the front lines in the Middle East? The risks they face are of the most harrowing kind. Yet they leave family and comfort behind to protect us, the rule of law, and our way of life. They epitomize the highest values of our profession and make us proud of their courage in the face of such risks.

In so many ways, both small and large, lawyers take risks. Ours is a profession that seeks thoughtful contemplation and reasoned colloquy much of the time. Yet, time and time again lawyers step up to the plate and take big risks on behalf of a client or a cause. If you have examples of important ways you or other lawyers have taken risks for the common good, won't you send them to the GPSolo editor so they can be shared with our readers?

As you read through this issue's articles, enjoy them, and remember that risk comes in packages of all shapes and sizes. As an American lawyer you have been trained to face risk and to deal with it. Perhaps by doing so, you, too, are a hero!

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