June 01, 2016

Sidebar: Making a Difference

If you wish to make a difference, law provides many options.

Kenneth P. Nolan

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One fall afternoon at Brooklyn College, I walked from my freshman writing class to Boylan Hall, where some 50 students were protesting military recruitment on campus. The drab lobby was packed with long-hairs chanting antiwar slogans while the two neat, uniformed Army recruiters sat quietly, most likely as bewildered by the scene as I. My first sit-in. How cool.

By that time, the campus of all commuter students was mostly empty, so I hung around reveling in this unusual, yet exciting happening. I had seen protests and sit-ins on TV, but my life experiences were somewhat akin to those of a member of a lost tribe of the Amazon. Planes flew overhead, but I had never been on one. Paris, Rome, even California existed, but the farthest I had been was Maryland to visit my aunt. Only behind the veil of the confessional would I admit that I really wasn’t familiar with Manhattan, forget about Queens and the Bronx.

Finally, I was witness to something electrifying, something provoking. This was what college was all about, I concluded. We didn’t have football games, ivy-covered buildings, not even a dorm, but it may expose me to extraordinary events, uncommon ideas. I was thrilled. As I headed to Bedford Avenue to hop the bus home, tons of cops in riot gear lined the street. A police wagon then drove through the front gate, followed by the officers in formation who, on command, charged into Boylan, dragging out the students—male and female—by their arms or legs, heads bouncing off stone steps. I had once witnessed a gang war, where one of my friends smashed a baseball bat over some punk’s head. Crack. I heard this sound again and again as batons found skulls. One student stood and punched an officer. He was battered, kicked, and tossed into the wagon, bleeding profusely.

I was raised in a neighborhood of cops. My cousin was NYPD, as were three or four who lived on my block. My father, tall and Irish, was always mistaken for a police officer. It was a good job, I was taught: you help people, can’t be laid off, and retire with a good pension. Cops were tough, but maybe a smack or two. This was different. Unnecessary, excessive violence to end a peaceful protest. A scene that was replayed on many campuses until four students were shot dead at Kent State in 1970.

The sixties and early seventies were a time of passion and rage. Vietnam divided the country and radicalized the young. We were horrified by the senseless war and suffering. My parents’ generation despised our hair, dress, and thoughts. Those clueless old fogies handed us a world of poverty and prejudice. We would leave the next generation equality, peace, and prosperity. Piece of cake.

I guess by now you realize that we baby boomers didn’t live up to the hype. Not only did we not create Utopia, but we’ll probably bankrupt Social Security. The world’s a mess and our legacy, sadly, may be greed and hatred, not the peace and love we practiced in the mud of Woodstock. In those days of optimism and naïveté, I believed—we all believed—that we could build a better world. After all, we were smart and caring, benevolent and sensitive. Our intentions were pure.

This same yearning is what I hear from young lawyers. They desperately want to make a difference, make this planet better, fairer, kinder. It’s the same idealism that I and my generation had when our hair was long and our eyes starry. So what happened? We ended the Vietnam War, yet evolved into a generation typified by hedge funds and McMansions.

I mean, we did some things right, didn’t we? Progress has been made on the environment, race relations, women’s and gay rights. Indeed, worldwide, those living in extreme poverty (whatever that means) has fallen from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011. But then there’s the Middle East, the enmity between right and left, and the disappearance of my working-class world, widening the chasm between rich and poor. And as my Moldavian immigrant cabbie told me, “Everybody hates us.”

It’s hard. I know it’s a cop-out, as we used to say. But it’s true. Darn hard to end hatred and ensure world peace. I taught inner-city high school for five years. Much more rewarding than trying a case, but so very frustrating. The best teacher in the school couldn’t do much if the dopey kid wasn’t in his seat. The older teachers, who could recite Keats or Wordsworth, urged me to leave. They couldn’t reach students who read on a fifth grade level, couldn’t write a sentence. I enjoyed my classes but knew that I would be worn down by the overcrowding, the lack of resources, the indifference toward education that permeated Park Slope before gentrification. My daughter, much stronger than I, is a wonderful educator who has 32 first graders, and, no, there’s no aide.

All this could have been overcome, but it required perseverance, sacrifice. Instead, after attending law school at night, I took a leave of absence and never returned. I don’t regret this decision, for I realize that one teacher—or lawyer—can’t change the world. Yet, I also know that my influence would have been more profound had I remained a teacher.

Like a commencement speaker, I urge one and all to follow their dreams. Even if you’re a member of the bar representing a rapacious corporate polluter, you can still do good. But there’s this thing called the real world with its never-ending bills for rent, utilities, cable TV. Then one dark night, cute little Hunter or Sunshine pops out and all you can think of is how the heck am I going to pay for college. Easy to become selfish and focus only on yourself. This is what happened to much of my generation. Resist the temptation.

Do your part. It’s easy to demand you be like St. Francis of Assisi—renounce wealth, don a coarse brown habit, and devote your life to the poor. Certainly, I didn’t do that, and I’m not big on animals either. But you can emulate St. Francis by being courteous and charitable. Today everyone, it seems, is arrogant and angry. There’s a loss of civility not only in our litigation tactics, but also in politics, social media, the way we drive. Just mention gun control, abortion, immigration, and an expletive-filled rant will go on for days. Start by respecting others and their opinions, even if they root for the Redskins.

You will always feel inconsequential. The reality is that the only ones who truly effect change are those who discover penicillin or invent air conditioning. Sure, Steve Jobs was a visionary whose products altered how we live, but he didn’t do it alone, and it could be claimed that his outsourcing production to China wasn’t exactly altruistic. And you don’t even know who invented air conditioning, do you? But you don’t have to cure cancer to be valuable, to transform lives. Much of my career was involved with arcane legal issues. On occasion, however, I helped a family or two. Same for you.

Do pro bono work. It doesn’t have to be full-fledged litigation on gay marriage, income inequality, and that stuff. Help a neighbor write a will, maneuver through probate court, resolve a Medicaid issue. Look outside the law—coach your daughter’s soccer team, volunteer at a soup kitchen, clean a park. There are thousands of ways to be men and women for others. Share your intelligence, grace, and good humor. If you can incorporate it in your job as a litigator, that’s fabulous. But if that’s not possible, do it when you’re not researching the latest boring federal rule amendment. Make time.

Remember what’s important. Family, friends, work. Do your job and do it well. Be a nice person; there are too many rotten ones. If you litigate with class and courtesy, it could be contagious. If you wish to make a difference, law provides many options. Use your education and skill not only to win cases but to assist the less fortunate. Learn from our mistakes.

Kenneth P. Nolan

The author, a senior editor of Litigation and the author of A Streetwise Guide to Litigation (ABA Publishing 2013), is counsel to Speiser, Krause, Nolan & Granito, Rye Brook, New York.