September 01, 2016 GPSolo | Feature

Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul

Melanie Bragg

Defining moments are the clothespins that hold up the tapestry of our lives.

Several years ago I began interviewing friends in the legal community about their defining moments in an effort to come up with a leadership model I could use to teach others to live better lives and to become leaders in their communities. I wanted to learn what experiences shaped them and to identify patterns in their stories that would motivate, encourage, and inspire other professionals.

What I found in my interviews only confirmed what I knew: Lawyers are not only natural leaders, but they are also givers and hard workers. You see them serving in philanthropic positions in their communities all across the country. Leadership is engrained in our profession, and every lawyer is in some way, each day, being a leader.

The American Bar Association is publishing my research and conclusions in a book titled Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul. My good friend and mentor, Jack Canfield, co-creator of the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Soul series, helped me learn how to conduct the interviews and how to get the stories that people really care about. The stories, once I had them all transcribed and edited, are a treasure trove of interesting autobiographical information about some of the brightest legal minds and successful lawyers in America. With 55 interviews under my belt, I began to see a pattern in the stories, and I realized that I had a goldmine of leadership information to pass on not only to lawyers but also to businessmen and women in all professions. This harmonious blend of stories is a leadership manual for any entrepreneur or person who wants to learn the secrets of getting ahead and enjoying life to its fullest.

In the interviews I asked the lawyers to give me their “lead line,” a success principle they have followed in their life that helped define their path. I describe it as their tag line or the main success principle they wanted to communicate in the interview. By sharing their lead lines with you, my goal is for you to identify your lead lines and begin living from your highest self to achieve your life’s purpose.

When I began to think about lead lines, I took the word “lead” and broke it down into four main leadership principles: Legacy, Excellence, Authenticity, and Determination.

Once I had the four leadership principles, immediately a pattern developed, and it was uncanny how the stories naturally gravitated into these four categories. I am grateful for the many amazing lawyers who are included in the book. Their back stories—the experiences that formed the basis of their lives—point us to events that triggered their most profound, life-changing moments where a pivot was required to broaden their horizons and get them to where they are today.

The key component that distinguishes leaders is how they overcome and use their life struggles to grow and advance themselves, their families, and their communities.


Legacy as a leadership principle is different from the typical definition of legacy in a legal context—the passing, after death, of personal or real property to relatives and friends. My definition of legacy includes many more things that I feel give us meaning in our lives on a daily basis. Has anyone ever come back to you and thanked you for something you said or did? Maybe it was something small you said that you barely remember, but when you realize the impact it had on someone, you say to yourself, “I made a difference in their life!” Whether you did it intentionally or unintentionally, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you made a difference. Legacy is a living, ongoing, and organic part of life that I feel should be emphasized and focused on more frequently. Legacy happens daily through our meaningful acts that impact lives.


Pamila J. Brown: Lift Others as You Climb

The Honorable Judge Pamila J. Brown served for many years in the GPSolo Division and has been a longtime friend in the ABA. Judge Brown’s lead line is “Lift Others as You Climb.” There is an inherent reference to legacy here. You create legacy with every step you take up the ladder of success.

Born the child of schoolteachers in Bel Air, Maryland, a small, segregated town, she was “one of four brown kids” at her elementary school. Early on, she felt the sting of an unjustified bias that had nothing to do with anything but the color of her skin. Her second-grade teacher would fix everyone’s hair but hers. When she asked for help with math, the teacher patted her on the head and told her not to worry about it, that “all little colored kids have trouble with math.” The experience instilled in her the understanding of the “power of our words.” From that time forward, she refrained from calling people names.

One of her defining moments occurred when Black Panther H. Rap Brown was tried for incitement and weapons violations in the wake of the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Then a high school student, Judge Brown was determined to see the trial. She says, “I snuck in, but I was not able to get very far. I did get to see William Kunstler, the defense attorney, and, honestly, with his suit and tie and disheveled hair, he was a wild man.” Judge Brown first had the thought that she wanted to be a lawyer when she saw this man who “took a risk of representing this African American man at a time when the riots were going on. He wasn’t going to be very popular, either. But he was going to use the law to defend H. Rap Brown.”

Judge Brown has created legacy all along the path of her life, from being active in student government in college and in law school to becoming the first woman and the first person of color to serve as president of the Student Bar Association at the University of Baltimore School of Law. She became the first black woman president of the Baltimore City Bar Association. She recalls an early ABA speech “about the learned professions—law, medicine, and religion—and that even as through each of those you are making a living by doing what you do, you’re also making a difference by serving the public in some way.” She says, “That always stuck with me.”


Laurel G. Bellows: Just Do It

Laurel G. Bellows is a former ABA president and former chair of the GPSolo Division. She was an only child raised by her mother, and she had a grandmother and an aunt who were big influences in her life. She graduated law school in 1974 in an era when “you just blended into a man’s world.” As president of the Chicago Bar Association (1991–1992), she looked around and saw few women trying cases. Almost inadvertently she started what is now called the Chicago Bar Association Alliance for Women. She has also chaired the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession.

When we talked about the ABA Young Lawyers Division and how young lawyer affiliates shared projects, Laurel said,

In one defining moment you could actually change the universe in a certain area because you sent 350 bar leaders out into the world with a program they wanted to run. I would say to myself, “Now this is power.” Power used well. This is a platform. Imagine what one person can do. They think about a program. They get the program done. They showcase it. And the world changes. It’s pretty amazing stuff.

Her favorite quote is the Chinese proverb: The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it. So she says, “Just Do It!”


Excellence is a quality all leaders share. The process of cultivating and maintaining a standard of excellence is a characteristic on which leaders place a priority and that they continue to develop as their lives unfold and they gain positions of power and visibility in their careers and in their personal lives. The leaders I interviewed all exhibit a high degree of excellence in their lives and in their law practices.


Dennis W. Archer: Always Be Ethical; Return Phone Calls the Same Day; Keep a Clean Desk

Former ABA President Dennis W. Archer gives sound, practical advice for his lead line, and it forms the basis of the leadership principle of excellence. He says,

“Always be ethical” is practical because you can lose your law license in the same amount of time that it will take you to start law school, take your first exam, and get your grades back if you violate the Canon of Ethics. Nothing is worth that. “Returning your phone calls timely” is important because even the nagging client may give you a referral or refer you your biggest case one day. “Keep a clean desk” sends the right message when you go out to the lobby and bring your clients back into your office; they see it and think the only thing you have got to do in life is take on their work.

Dennis was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1942; Joe Lewis, the heavyweight champion boxer, lived right across from him. Dennis says, “He was a source of pride in our neighborhood, and I grew up with that pride of him inside me.” His family moved to Cassopolis, Michigan, when he was five, and for the first few years they did not have running water. He says, “That meant Saturday night was metal tub bath night. No running water meant no inside bathroom facilities; thus, during wintertime the outhouse was rather chilly. We had a honey pot in the house at night during those years.”

Dennis has come a long way in life from those humble beginnings, but he never forgets where he came from: “My life experiences have taught me what it is like to need, how to reach for the stars while still respecting people and holding them in the highest regard.” His parents “instilled the value that if you want something, you’ve got to work for it, you’ve got to save your money to buy it, and something that is worth having is worth working for or saving for.”

Early on, he saw the importance of hard work: “Hard work produces excellence in one’s character.” In high school he worked at a bakery. He says,

I walked a mile in the early morning to go in and sweep and mop the floor. I would go back home, sleep half an hour, and then go to school. Edwin Johnson owned a metal business. He must have seen me walking by in the early mornings and must have liked my tenacity, my willingness to work, and my work ethic because he asked me to stop going downtown and to come work for him after school.

In August 2016 Dennis was awarded the ABA Medal, the ABA’s highest honor, at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco. His life embodies excellence, and I suggest we all follow his lead line for success.


Alan O. Olson: Get Outside Your Comfort Zone

Alan O. Olson was raised in Mankato, Minnesota, in what he calls “a very economically challenged part of town.” His early lessons in teamwork were instilled in him whenever it rained: Whoever was in the house would “make a mad dash for the cupboard to get all of the pots and pans to catch as many of the leaks flowing through the roof as possible.” But the close-knit family and neighborhood full of “hard-working, open, and honest people who were wired to just feel comfortable in their own skin” gave Alan a great base to draw on.

Alan decided to become a lawyer because, if he wanted to dedicate his life to leveling the playing field for the have-nots, the legal system was the best post to do it from. He notes, “I found a big part of my identity was championing the causes of others, but particularly those who were picked on, labeled, or ostracized.”

The defining moment that formed this identity came on the grade school playground where three boys were beating up another boy. He could not stand idly by on the sidelines. He says, “I had to get in there and try to do everything I could to help him. I think that experience had a profound effect on my life’s compass.” Alan utilized his wrestling moves and dared stand up to the “in” popular boys. He says, “When you go through an experience like that, you realize that things are not as simple as black and white or win or lose. It’s about whether you tried your best to make a meaningful and lasting difference in the lives of real people about things that you feel passionate and strongly about.”

Alan is another example of excellence in action, and the results have meaning in his life beyond the material. It’s what makes him tick.


Authentic is defined by Merriam-Webster as “real or genuine; not copied or false; true and accurate.” Authenticity is a characteristic leaders must have to weather the storms of life and the challenges that go along with being on the cusp of the wave, forging new territory in society that others follow. Often we feel we have to be like others to get ahead. I remember being a young woman in the law and how we all wore those little silk ties so we could look like the men. Back in those days I did what everyone else did in order to fit in. I did not have the confidence to set myself apart and be different. What I did not realize was that I was different in just being a woman lawyer who had the guts to get out there and hang a shingle.

I ask you to explore the ways that you are living an authentic life and suggest that you will learn a lot about those qualities from the lawyers whose stories fall into this section.


Robert J. Grey Jr.: You’ve Got to Be in It to Win It

Former ABA President and GPSolo Chair Robert J. Grey Jr. is the product of a military father and an educator mother. Living in Europe as a child expanded his worldview. He returned to a segregated Richmond, Virginia. Oliver W. Hill, of Brown v. Board of Education fame and a close friend of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, was a neighbor and became a good friend and mentor.

In his life, like Dennis Archer, Robert has been the first in many situations. He says, “It reminds you that we have come a long way and that we have a long way to go.” In the 1980s he was president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, one of the oldest political organizations in the world. He learned about civic responsibility from his parents. He says, “If there is any one thing that I saw that was crystal clear to me, it was that you have a responsibility to participate. You can’t just sit on your hands and watch and let other people do it.”

About expanding the boundaries to create a more inclusive society, he says you have to “get a little bit beyond this idea of fear and of being uncomfortable. Give yourself permission to extend your borders a little bit and take more risks. If you take more risks, there is a higher chance of reward.” Robert knows the advantage of taking risks and of moving to a different solution once a disappointment is encountered. His life is based on his authenticity as a human being. I have interviewed him twice, and I am excited to share more of his story. He is truly “in it to win it.”


Wilson Adam Schooley: Human Connection Is Above All Else Most Important

Wil Schooley’s life now defines authenticity, but it was a developed skill. It did not come naturally or without effort. Wil was born in the 1960s, at a tumultuous time in a dramatic place: Berkeley, California. Two of his brothers participated in the Freedom Rides with Dr. King in Alabama and Mississippi. He was in the first class of voluntary integration in the country. When there were riots at the University of California while he was in grammar school, he would be released early because of tear gas alerts and would go up Telegraph Avenue to watch the Free Speech Movement unfold.

The thing I find most fascinating about Wil is the fact that he was an extremely shy child with a tendency to keep an emotional distance from others. From an early age the plight of those who were affected by injustice caught his imagination. In order to pursue his dream of helping others conquer injustice, he had to overcome his fear of public speaking.

He says, “When you see people who are dramatically affected by injustice, you have a drive to work for justice.” Through many trials and tribulations, he is living his dream of being an actor, and he even got to play Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird on stage. Remembering how it felt when people would come up to him afterward to congratulate him and tell him how moved they were, he says, “That’s the kind of thing—the human connection—that we all live for.”

It is no wonder that Wil will have the honor of chairing the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice in 2018–2019. Working tirelessly and often under the radar, he is now living the dreams he envisioned as a child and works to make justice appear where injustice resides.


By our very nature, lawyers are hard workers. Our training includes a rigorous four years of college study followed by three years of law professors rewiring our brain to think analytically, to weigh all sides of the story, and to formulate solutions that we enact in courtrooms, legislatures, and mediation conferences all across the country each day. The discipline required to study for and pass the bar exam is unparalleled.

However, it is more than just being a good student or being disciplined enough to get your law degree. Being a leader requires survival skills to the max, an ability to change courses, to try new avenues. The big client case is lost. The insurance company chooses another lawyer. The stream of income dries up. The partner leaves the firm. And don’t forget all the personal issues that come up in the course of life: illness, death, divorce, and substance abuse, to name a few.

Time and again I noticed in my interviews that the great leaders have an indomitable spirit: They won’t give up; they can’t give up, no matter how dark things might appear in the moment. My lead line in the book exemplifies determination: “Never, Ever Give Up!” They don’t call me the Unsinkable Melanie Bragg for nothing. Obstacles are opportunities for growth, and leaders embrace the challenge.


Benes Z. Aldana: Adapt to Change

The Honorable Captain Benes Z. Aldana, former Chair of GPSolo, was born in a small village in the Philippines and came to the United States when he was ten. The biggest defining moment of his life was his transition from the Philippines to the United States. He remembers the hope and aspiration of living here and of the American Dream. On the plane ride over, he began to know who he was and began gaining the awareness that there was this new adventure called life, full of possibilities and opportunities. He knew then that he “had to grab it and take a different approach to life.”

When Benes started school in the United States, he had a thick accent. Kids made fun of him. In order to defend himself, he and his brother pretended to know karate. It was almost an everyday ritual. He would get off the bus, and some bully would be waiting to pick on him because of his accent. He would fake karate moves and the kids would scatter. He says, “I think as an immigrant you always want to prove yourself and you are determined to do things better.”

It is no surprise that Benes is now the chief trial judge of the U.S. Coast Guard—the first Asian Pacific American to serve as a chief trial judge in U.S. military history.

Scott C. LaBarre: Possibilities Are Limitless, Regardless of Who and Where You Are

Scott C. LaBarre embodies the principle of determination because he has overcome the disability of being blind as a lawyer and has never let that stop him from moving forward or achieving his goals. His father instilled in him the principle of being responsible for his own life. He says, “I learned to just get out there when I had an idea, a dream, or an ambition and go for it, even though it appeared the odds were stacked against me.”

Scott had his sight up until about the fourth grade, when he contracted retinitis uveitis and had to learn to deal with and adjust to the new reality of being blind. Scott always finds a way to turn a negative into the positive, and his sheer drive and desire to innovate and create a brilliant life make him someone I admire. He is deeply involved in the National Federation of the Blind, one of whose key themes is Braille literacy.

Scott observes, “A lot of people say to me, ‘Law school must have been so tough for you.’ What they are saying is, ‘Law school must have been so tough for you because you are blind.’ Isn’t law school tough for anybody?”

He exemplifies the leadership principle of determination. Scott says of his law school experience:

It’s designed to be tough, right? Was it any tougher? I don’t think so. I did what I needed to do. I didn’t ask for anything special. I didn’t make any excuses because of my blindness. Yes, I had accommodations. I used Braille. I used whatever techniques I knew of, and I got through law school just like anybody else. In fact, at that time, I became president of the National Association of Blind Students.

Using Lead Lines to Become a Leader

These are just a few of the lead lines and stories that will appear in my book. I hope you are inspired to think about and assess your current leadership status—and to plan bigger and better dreams for yourself knowing that your peers, who are doing great things for themselves, their families, and the world, have gone through the same trials and tribulations, the bitter defeats and the wrong choices that turned out to be right or at least solvable. With the principles of legacy, excellence, authenticity, and determination, you can cultivate the skill of being an effective leader in your sphere of influence, no matter how micro or macro that is destined to be. It is wonderful to be a leader and celebrate the great profession of the law that is so vital to our communities, our country, and the world.

Melanie Bragg

Melanie Bragg is principal of Bragg Law PC, a general practice in Houston, Texas, with an emphasis on mediation, probate, family, and business law. She is Vice Chair of the GPSolo Division and is the author of the Alex Stockton legal thriller Crosstown Park and the ABA publications HIPAA for the General Practitioner and the forthcoming Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul. Readers are invited to e-mail her at with comments regarding this article or her forthcoming book.