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August 28, 2019 Opening Statement

The Joy of Being a Lawyer

Palmer Gene Vance II

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For this, my final Opening Statement, I struggled a bit with selecting a topic. It finally occurred to me that I should share with you the foundational reason that I have the opportunity to write this column: I love being a lawyer. More specifically, I love being a trial lawyer. In my 29th year of practice, I enjoy this work more than ever.

I fully realize that some of our colleagues do not have the same level of satisfaction with this profession. A recent survey from the Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division revealed that 30 percent of those surveyed would not enroll in law school if they knew then what they know now. Further, 33 percent of the respondents indicated that they were very or somewhat unsatisfied with their career choice. These are disappointing, but not surprising, results. As with almost any profession, the law offers long hours, uncertain pay, crippling student debt, challenging situations, and, too often, a lack of guidance and empathy from those more senior. Addressing these difficulties is the obligation of the profession and the organized bar. Perhaps the best guidance I can provide is to explain why I truly enjoy being a lawyer and to offer my experience as a case study for others.

More than 25 years ago, I had the opportunity to listen to an incoming president of the Kentucky Bar Association explain to his audience why he was proud to be a Kentucky lawyer. Parts of that speech have stuck with me ever since, and I dug the rest of it out of the library (yes, we still have one—though it is smaller) as research for this column. The theme of those remarks revolved around lawyers representing clients or acting in the public sphere on behalf of unpopular or controversial causes. The conclusion drawn was that we should all be proud to be lawyers because of the rights we vindicate, the interests we protect, and the justice system we serve. Those evergreen sentiments prompted the following thoughts as to why I do love this work.

1. Lawyers have the opportunity to help people. Reggie Love, the determined protagonist in John Grisham’s The Client, famously said, “You advised him not to get a lawyer, giving as one of your reasons the opinion that lawyers are a pain in the ass. Gentlemen, the pain is here.” While we should not try to be a pain, the basic point is important. Lawyers have the responsibility to aid clients in presenting their case and in achieving the best possible outcome. This is true whether the client is an individual or an entity. Most of my work involves representation of companies in civil litigation. Their interests are no less important than those of individual clients. Our justice system must provide a predictable method of dispute resolution for all who invoke it. Ensuring that the system works for all types of litigants is critical to making sure that it is fair for the individual litigant. Providing representation for a criminal defendant who is very likely guilty guarantees the same protections for the unjustly accused.

As trial lawyers, we must also remember that resolution of the dispute in the client’s interest must always be the goal. Sometimes, that requires a trial. More often, it does not. As Gandhi reminded us in his autobiography,

I realized that the true function of a lawyer was to unite parties riven asunder. The lesson was so indelibly burnt into me that a large part of my time during the twenty years of my practice as a lawyer was occupied in bringing about private compromises of hundreds of cases. I lost nothing thereby—not even money, certainly not my soul.

Winning a case is an unparalleled experience, but a “good result” need not require that there be a winner and a loser.

2. Lawyers produce well-crafted arguments. When I was a younger lawyer, I loved to write. I don’t pretend that I was a gifted writer, but putting together a logical and well-supported argument in support of a legal position was a great deal of fun. I continue to believe that a good argument should be written in simple, clear, and concise language. As Judge Learned Hand observed, “The language of the law must not be foreign to the ears of those who are to obey it.” This guidance is equally applicable to writing for judges. When clerking for a U.S. district judge, I vividly remember reading a sentence in a brief that began as follows: “While it is difficult to denude the complaint of its vituperative allegations. . . .” All these years later, I still use this as an example when working with younger lawyers about simplifying language in briefs—particularly since the brief was actually produced by the law firm where I have now practiced for nearly a quarter century. Persuasive writing is a gift. It is not complex, it should not require a dictionary, and it is one of the great pleasures of being a lawyer.

3. Lawyers guard the system of justice. “Justice, justice you shall pursue” commands the Old Testament. It is astonishing to think about the fragility of our system of justice. It really does function based on the consent of those who are subject to it, and we are always at risk that it could be lost. We know of the likely apocryphal statement of President Andrew Jackson in response to the decision of the Supreme Court in Worcester v. Georgia, after which he supposedly stated, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.” Fortunately for our system, there was nothing for the president to actually enforce in response to the decision and the State of Georgia did comply with the Court’s ruling. However, the outcome could well have been different. I am proud to be part of a profession that safeguards the rule of law. You can see the power of lawyers in the Pakistani lawyers’ movement of 2007–2009. The bar protested the imposition of a state of emergency and the removal of the chief justice and other judges. Eventually, the protests were successful and the rule of law was restored. In the United States, the American Bar Association leads in advocating for the rule of law and its preservation. It is the ABA’s most important role. Though it may sound clichéd, being a lawyer allows me to play a small part in safeguarding our rights.

4. Lawyers serve the profession through the organized bar. At the beginning of my service as chair of the Section of Litigation, I outlined our priorities for the year, including increasing our focus on solo and small firm litigators. I have now had the opportunity to travel across the country speaking to trial lawyers about their needs and concerns. At this writing, we have made three visits on our midsized city tours with two more on the schedule. These visits with nearly 200 litigators in 16 law firms in Wilmington, Omaha, and Montgomery have reaffirmed my conviction that the Section of Litigation provides significant benefits to lawyers in these practice settings. For the solo and small firm litigator in particular, we provide the resources that are often only available in large firms, including high-quality continuing legal education, practical publications, and the best content available on the craft of being a trial lawyer.

The benefits of bar association membership are not confined to the Section. I have benefited immensely from my bar involvement over the years, and it has been a key reason I so enjoy being a lawyer. Through my state and local bar association work, I have had the opportunity to work with lawyers from throughout my home state on various projects, including disaster relief for our neighbors, development of training materials for young lawyers, cochairing our state bar convention, and serving as president of my local bar. Through the ABA, I have had the opportunity to represent my state in the national House of Delegates, help raise funds for the ABA’s charitable work, help celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, and, of course, serve as chair of this outstanding Section. My career as a lawyer has been greatly enriched by these experiences and they are an essential reason for my love of this profession.

5. Lawyers make their communities better. I firmly believe that one of the keys to personal satisfaction as a lawyer is to focus on what you can give to others. Earlier, I commented on this aspect of our profession as it relates to our clients. It absolutely extends to our role as volunteers and leaders in our communities, and it is part of doing well by doing good. I can understand why younger lawyers might find the initial years of practice to be challenging. Certainly, that was the case for me as well. But I always found great satisfaction in being active in my community whether through service with nonprofits, alumni groups, or other types of public service. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “Since you get more joy out of giving joy to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness that you are able to give.” It has been an essential element of enjoying my career as a lawyer to give back.

Like former Kentucky Bar president John Prather all those years ago (and, for him, still today), I am proud to be a lawyer. I am proud that we trial lawyers protect rights, advocate for others, advance our justice system, and serve the bar and our communities. These are the reasons I love being a lawyer. For this first-generation college student from the Appalachian foothills, it has been the greatest privilege of my career to serve as chair of the Section of Litigation this past year. Thank you for your membership, and thank you for being a trial lawyer.

Palmer Gene Vance II

The author is chair of the Section of Litigation and a member of Stoll Keenon Ogden PLLC, Lexington, Kentucky.

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).