May 01, 2017

Defining Moments: Life Lessons from William T. Robinson III

Melanie Bragg

Our dearly departed former ABA president and good friend to many of us, William T. Robinson III, gave me one of the best interviews for Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul. From the moment I met him, I was taken aback by his easygoing personality and his kindness. He was just a happy man. During a recent ABA meeting, I stood near a balcony and saw Bill enter the room below from the far end. He walked with a brisk pace, a big smile on his face, and his eager eyes scanned the room. He greeted those he knew, and I am sure he greeted those he did not. His countenance was perceivable from that far away. Of course, I tried to hang over the ledge and call out to him. He waved back up at me as if he wanted to jump up and fly to greet me. His enthusiasm was contagious.

 

Bill Robinson was a very special person. He came from a devout Catholic family and from very humble beginnings. After our interview, he was dogged in his support of me and my writing career. He read my first legal thriller, Crosstown Park, and loved it so much he bought a bunch of them for his friends for Christmas and even wrote a great review for me on Amazon. Even though he was a giant of a man, he was so easy to talk to and he made everyone feel at home and comfortable, as if you were talking to an old friend. He was generous with his time and with his enthusiasm for life. The cornerstone of his life was his faith, and he lived the consummate spiritual life. This doesn’t mean he was perfect and always had his ducks in a row. It means that he was a work in progress—always looking for ways to do things faster, better, stronger, and in keeping with godly principles.

I want to share with you some excerpts from my interview that I hope will give you insight into what made Bill Robinson tick. For all of us who knew and loved him, I hope it will honor his legacy by encouraging us to live as he suggests, and for those who didn’t know him, may they learn something new that will enrich their lives by hearing his story.

The main thing I learned from talking to Bill was that he was guided in large part by his intuition because he felt, as I do, that the Holy Spirit speaks to you through your intuition. He practiced his faith each day.

 

On his background

“I am truly a greater Cincinnatian, and that has been my home all my life. My mom and dad are the heroes of my life. My dad was in the South Pacific fighting in the Second World War when I was born in 1945. My mother was the youngest of nine and was the first to graduate from high school. They were part of the greatest generation, and their focus was on the education of their children. That was their primary goal in life—for their children to get the education they never had the chance to get. When I say we were poor financially, I want to emphasize we were not poor in any other way. It was a very positive childhood.”

 

On his work ethic

“I started cleaning garbage cans and ashtrays, doing floors, when I was in the third grade and my brother was in the first grade. I felt privileged every day of my life because I saw the way my parents were working for us and we were privileged to work with them, and it was all toward our education. I was an All-City basketball player through the Friars Club, which was a couple of blocks from my small, Catholic elementary school. I went to mass every day.

“Nuns taught me every grade of elementary school, and I can still name every one of them. It was around 1959, and I’ll never forget them. They laid my educational foundation for the rest of my life. People ask me, ‘What did they do?’ The nuns convinced me to believe in my dreams, to recognize that I could achieve anything I set out to achieve if I worked hard enough and was determined enough, sacrificed enough and stayed focused on my goal. Coming from my background—success equaled a combination of faith, discipline, and strong educational foundation (i.e., we crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’).”

 

On goals and the bumps in the road along the way

“What I recognized, and what my parents taught my brother and me, and later, my younger sister, is that if one is focused on an ultimate goal with passion and determination, the speed bumps in the driveway, the steps we have to take, and the challenges we have to deal with are simply opportunities to move us toward that ultimate goal and should not, in and of themselves, be deterrents. They just must be dealt with, not because they are in the way, but because they are on the avenue to success. My dad used to say, ‘When you can do the little things right, you will do the bigger things better.’ And I never forgot that.”

 

On how the nuns influenced him

“I’ve heard jokes about nuns all my life and it has always gotten under my skin. Sisters were the first professional women that I ever knew, and their reward for achievement in life and dedication was just the success of kids like me. They didn’t get retirement plans; they didn’t get compensated; I mean they were just pure professional dedication, and that is an example that I have never forgotten.”

 

On wanting to be a priest and being in the seminary

“Father Louis P. Boyle gave a sermon I’ll never forget. He said, ‘If you think, if you even suspect, that God might want you to be a priest, do you want to go through your whole life wondering if you should have done that? If you come here, it will be a great education. We’ll teach you about life, and if you decide being a priest is not for you, you’ll have a good foundation to go out into the world and be successful. If you find it is your calling, you’ll find a wonderful life of spiritual fulfillment and happiness.’ Being a fairly independent kid and having worked virtually every day with my family, for my dad, that made a lot of sense to me and I just made up my mind to do it.

“My mother, of course, immediately identified me as a future pope. My dad said, ‘He’s too young. Make him go to St. X High School; let him play basketball; let him get a good education there, then after he comes out of high school. . . .’”

 

On how to live a happy life

“I know one of the secrets to happiness in life. I grew up in a matriarchal household, and today I live in a matriarchal household. I know how the world is supposed to work. Guess who won that debate between my mother and my father? My mother did, right? So, I go off to the seminary where I lived for five years from the eighth grade through first year of college. We would come home in the summer, a couple of days at Thanksgiving, a week or so at Christmas, and a weekend at Easter. I loved it. For me, it was such a learning experience in every way—such a positive, constructive experience.”

 

On discovering intuition

“The summer of 1964 I had just finished my first year of college at the seminary. I carried 23 credit hours a semester. I came home, visited with the parents, and did a little part-time job. I cut hair in the seminary, and I learned how to be a barber. That’s how I made my money so I could buy my books. I was cutting hair the day that John Kennedy was shot and someone burst through the door. Of course, everything in the seminary shut down. We all went to the chapel to pray for the president. When I went home the summer of 1964, my plan was to go back to the seminary. Then, when I was introduced as, “This is Bill Robinson. He’s going to be a priest,” I realized it just didn’t fit. Something did not ring right when I heard myself introduced that way. For the previous five years, that’s all I wanted to be was a priest. That is what I was determined to be. That is what I saw myself being. And then in less than 30 days, I changed my mind. I think it was divine providence.”

 

On following his path in life

Armed with this new revelation Bill drove up to the seminary to see Father Boyle, the spiritual director. “His initial remarks had really persuaded me to go to the seminary. I explained to him what was happening. He said, ‘Let me explain something to you. The last time I checked around, here nobody is getting an apparition, an appearance from God or the Blessed Mother. It just doesn’t happen that way. God speaks to us through our intuition. That’s the way God speaks to us. It sounds to me like God is speaking to you. We should always listen when we think God is communicating with us. It sounds to me like you need to get out there in the world and see what your destiny is. If you find out you want to come back, we’d love to have you. It’s been great to have you here, but you need to explore this. You need to find out what this is about.’”

 

On life as a calling

“By this time, I see life as a calling. ‘Vocation’ is a big word in the Catholic Church—a calling to serve, a calling to make a positive difference in the lives of others. That’s a vocation. It’s our purpose for being here.”

But now he had to tell his family. Bill said, “So I waited for the right moment at Sunday dinner when there was a lull in the action. I said, ‘Hey, everybody. I’ve got something to tell you.’ People started dropping things on and off. Did I rob a bank? What happened here? It sounded dramatic, and it was. I said, ‘I’m not going back to the seminary.’ My mother looks across the table and said, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ As if there was really nothing else I could do. And I understood that. I said, ‘Well, Mom, I’ve thought about it, I’ve prayed about it. I’ve decided I’m going to try to be a lawyer.’”

 

On the shift from seminary student to lawyer

“Intuition. I had read Thomas Moore. I was a devotee of Thomas Moore. I read To Kill a Mockingbird. I read about lawyers. Back then, everything I read about lawyers was positive and about service, about making a positive difference in people’s lives. It seemed to me that it would be the career I most logically connected with and would be the most fulfilling. These were the primary reasons I had gone to the seminary—to try to make a positive difference in the lives of other people. My mother sat back and looked at me and without missing a beat, she said, ‘My God. From a saint to a sinner.’ Then she laughed. She was a great mom, of course. She came over and gave me a big hug.”

 

On having no exposure to lawyers

“Not only did I not know a lawyer, I had never met a lawyer. But I just knew. It seemed logical to me that this was the way, and I still truly believe that a career in the law, even in today’s tough economic times, is still the most meaningful avenue for professional service that a person can choose. By choosing it, one is assured of an endlessly fascinating, complex, interesting, challenging, fatiguing, fulfilling experience in life. And because it is all those things and more, success, real success, in the law can only be achieved with passion. It requires passion to generate the energy that is needed to do so much where there is so little time when resources are not enough. I don’t have the words or the adjectives to capture fully how wonderful a career in the law is. That applies to everyone, virtually everyone I know, in the law. Does that mean everyone is equally successful? No. Does it mean that everyone’s practice is like everyone else’s practice? No. But that is the fascination of it.”

 

On bumps in the road and losing as a path to success

“I’m a guy who could not get elected student bar president, student government president, local county bar president, and I end up president of the ABA. I want these young people to understand that is life. How you handle your defeats tells people more about you as a person than how you handle your victories. Most people are good winners, but not everybody is a good loser. People are going to lose, and you find out what people are all about when they lose. I just saw it that way, so I want them to understand, and especially if they become a litigator. When someone says ‘Lawyer So-and-So never lost a case,’ my response is that he or she hasn’t tried many cases. We learn more from our defeats than we ever learn from our victories. That is a fact of life.”

 

On his Lead Line: "How Do We Make a Positive Difference in the Lives of Those We Have a Privilege to Serve?"

When asked what should be his Lead Line, Bill didn’t skip a beat and said, “My Lead Line would be ‘How do we make a positive difference in the lives of those we have the privilege to serve?’ That is my Lead Line because that is the purpose for being a lawyer. Not the money, not the cars, not the houses, and not the second houses.”

 

On reading obituaries

Bill was passionate about reading obituaries. He said, “When I talk to younger people, one of the things I like to discuss with them is, ‘Does anybody in here ever read obituaries?’ They all look around. Of course, they don’t read obituaries. They don’t read obituaries in high school; they don’t read obituaries in college. I didn’t. But I tell them I want them to do a little exercise. In the next week . . . it used to be when you grabbed the paper, now when you look on your iPad for the news . . . look at the obituaries. And please call me if you ever read an obituary that says, ‘So-and-So died and owned three Mercedes or two houses, or this amount of jewelry, or had this amount of money.’ No. Scientists tell us that millions of years after revolutionary development and mostly progress in the human race, what is identified as worth mentioning is every human being’s life at the end—family, worship, community, and then maybe innovative business success. None of us should ever be measured by the quality of our car or the size of our home, and if that is your goal, you are doomed to frustration.”

Now if these excerpts haven’t given you a feel for the man and his passion about life and gotten you fired up about your own, I give up! I get excited just sharing them with you. We should all think about how we view our profession and our passion for our purpose. Are we living and walking in our vocation? Bill inspires me as much in his passing as he did in life, and his legacy will live on for many years beyond his life. It was an honor to be his friend.

 

What others in the Division say about Bill Robinson

“Bill was a class act and great leader. He struck me as a person who made time for everyone and a person who treated everyone like they were important without regard to their status in life.”—David Lefton, Chair, ABA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.

“Bill was first and foremost a servant—committed to using his considerable talents to help others and to leave things better than when he came. He used his ears and mouth proportionately to first understand, and later to solve complex challenges. He utilized his uncanny abilities to identify and illuminate the commonalities of seemingly opposed viewpoints to build consensus, to develop synergy, and to make a meaningful and lasting positive difference in the lives of real people. He was not merely successful but, far more importantly, valuable. All of this he accomplished with a spirit, grace, and sense of humor uncommon this side of heaven, elevating his continuing journey ‘Upward and Onward.’”—Alan O. Olson, Budget Director, ABA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.

“Bill was truly an inspiration of a life well lived, not because of his many successes but what he did to serve others and make a difference in people’s lives. He was an example of someone who did well by doing good.”—Benes Aldana, President, National Judicial College.

Friends wishing to honor Bill for his lifelong commitment to the rule of law and the judiciary may contribute to the Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III Scholarship Endowment. Learn more or make a gift (enter “Robinson Endowment” in the comment box). The fund will provide scholarships in perpetuity to ABA Judicial Division members to attend courses at the National Judicial College.

There are many lessons to be learned from this great man I was privileged to know, and I can’t wait to honor him in my book. Let’s all let our intuition be our guide and be a little more like this great man each and every day. I would love to hear from you about this article at melanie@legalinsightinc.com.

 

 

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Melanie Bragg

Melanie Bragg has long enjoyed a reputation as one of Houston’s fiercest attorneys in her representation of children, the elderly, and mentally disadvantaged people. Her firm, Bragg Law PC, is a general civil firm in Houston, Texas. She also writes and produces legal education programs through Legal Insight, Inc. (founded by Bragg in 1993). Her writing credits include Crosstown Park, an Alex Stockton legal thriller, HIPAA for the General Practitioner, chapters in How to Capture and Keep Clients, 2nd Edition; Effortless Marketing: Putting Your Unique Qualities to Work, 2nd Edition; and The Conscious Lawyer: How the Practice of Mindfulness Will Increase Your Bottom Line, as well as the upcoming book, Defining Moments: Insights into the Lawyer’s Soul, to be published by the American Bar Association (ABA) Flagship Division. When she is not writing, Melanie devotes her time to her work as Vice Chair of the Solo, Small Firm & General Practice (GPSolo) Division and to sharing ideas with fellow authors. She is interested in your feedback and ideas about how solos, small firms, military, and government lawyers can lead richer, happier lives and thereby improve the delivery of legal services to the public. Melanie can be reached at melanie@legalinsightinc.com.