April 01, 2013

Opening Statement: Remembering Why

Going to law school is neither a casual endeavor nor an easy decision.

William R. Bay

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My son is in law school right now. As I watch him navigate that process, I realize how much has changed since I attended law school. I spent long hours poring over thick textbooks in the lamplight of the University of Michigan’s massive law library, a building whose stately interior closely resembles the dining hall at Hogwarts. He accesses nearly all his books and course materials online.

I had to work up the courage to contact a professor. His are accessible not only in their office but also at all hours of the day. If I wanted help to find a job, it required hours in the placement office examining binders of materials on each firm. My son just checks a firm’s website and gets more information than I ever had.

It’s a long time since 1978. Sometimes it makes me think I am a relic from a bygone era. But his late night calls recounting his task list remind me some things never change: the work that’s required, the intense effort and long hours of study. Going to law school is neither a casual endeavor nor an easy decision. Hearing his experiences reminds me that today’s law students aren’t going to law school because they have the luxury of trying out a career in law. They’re pursuing that tough but rewarding journey because they really want to practice. That’s something they share with all of us. A passion for practice and something else as well: the knowledge that being a lawyer can make a real difference.

That’s what makes our profession special and gives litigators a unique position—we have the opportunity to transform people’s lives. I’m frequently reminded of that fact this year as the Section of Litigation remembers some of our country’s landmark cases and events: Gideon v. Wainwright, which recognized the constitutional right to the appointment of counsel for indigent criminal defendants charged with felonies; the vital role attorneys played in the Civil Rights movement; and the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act.

Our recent program on Gideon v. Wainwright brought to life the concept of transformation in the story of one of our featured speakers, Anthony Graves. Accused of murdering six people in 1992, Anthony spent 18 years on death row before a team of dedicated attorneys took up his case. He was exonerated in 2010.

The audience fell silent as Anthony told his moving story and described how alone he felt during his years of incarceration, most of them spent in solitary confinement. On the day of his release, when his attorneys arrived at the jail to tell him the prosecutor had dropped the charges against him, Anthony had trouble processing the news. “I’ve been battling for 18 years,” he said. “I’m in battle mode. I didn’t even hear this.” But he was free to go. His first call was to his mother, whom he told, “I’m coming home for dinner.”

He credited his release to the remarkable attorneys who worked so hard to secure his freedom. “That was the work of good attorneys who volunteered because they believed,” he said. He then turned to a rapt audience of litigators and spoke to them directly. “I don’t care how much money you’re ever going to make in your life . . . my attorney will tell you there is no greater feeling than you having something to do with a man gaining his freedom.”

Nothing else speaks more eloquently to the power of a litigator to transform the life of his or her client—to be an advocate at the time the client is most in need. I urge you to visit the Section of Litigation’s website and watch the video for yourself.

As I work through the day-to-day grind of practicing law, Anthony Graves’s incredible story was just the charge I needed to remind me why I went to law school and why I came to love litigation. After his comments, the first person I called was my son.

William R. Bay

Chair, Section of Litigation, and partner at Thompson Coburn, St. Louis.