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January 07, 2021 Feature


Respect is at the core of who you are and what you do every day.

James A. Reeder Jr.

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Two years ago, when I first realized that I would be chairing the Section of Litigation in the 2020–2021 bar year, one of the first things I did was to start thinking about what I wanted to accomplish. Over the 20 years that I have been in the leadership of the Section, I have witnessed many impactful and inspiring initiatives and programs from prior chairs. For several months, I was consumed with trying to identify an initiative that the Section could sponsor that would serve as the hallmark for my year and would be equally impressive.

At some point in the process, however, it dawned on me that I was trying too hard; whatever shape the year was going to take would have to be more of a reflection of me and less an effort to replicate what others before me had done. In 2001, when Scott Atlas tapped me to cochair the 2003 Section Annual Conference in Houston, he was explicit that one of the reasons was because he thought I was funny. I told my cochairs, Nancy Degan and Teddy Adams, to leave the money-raising and people parts of the conference to me, and I would leave the heavy content part to them. My dad had always emphasized to me that the legal profession is a people business. His friend and law partner Tommy Boggs used to say that the primary currency in Washington, D.C., was BS, and that in D.C., my dad was a billionaire. Thus, like my dad, I am naturally a people person.

And so, as I reflected on my own character and strengths, a theme for the year began to take shape. It would be about people. And relationships. And human frailty. And the qualities I learned as a Boy Scout: honesty, kindness, and courage, among others. Moreover, it would reflect all that I had experienced and observed and learned about people and relationships and viewpoints and emotions as a gay man. It would be about respect.

At first, I thought a theme of respect might be too soft, too squishy. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. At various times over my career, I have been more or less concerned about the nature of discourse between litigators. I started practicing during the advent of aggressive lawyering tactics. To some lawyers, litigation meant unrelenting, no-holds-barred combat in which any accommodation was seen as weakness. Although it seems that the aggressiveness of some lawyers in prosecuting their case has diminished somewhat, as trial lawyers, we should never lose sight of the fundamental importance of the manner in which we relate to one another. That was from where the theme of respect for one another emanated. And as will be further developed in my next chair’s column, that theme quickly expanded to include the manner in which we relate to one another outside of litigation as well. Who would have ever thought that there would be so much to do there!

The other subthemes evolved from the first. Perhaps because I am known as someone who has a joke for every occasion or circumstance, I was late to recognize but am increasingly sensitive to the human and emotional impact of some jokes; and that includes jokes about lawyers. If we don’t demonstrate respect for our profession, who will? Respect for the judiciary has been high on my list ever since I first heard the inexplicable term “activist judge.” I have been speaking on our ethical obligations to defend an independent judiciary for 20 years. Finally, for the last few years, there has been a renewed focus on the toll our careers take on our lives and our relationships. Respect for ourselves is just a new articulation of successful initiatives started by my predecessors. Each of these themes will be explored in greater detail in a future column.

Unlike an initiative or project that might only tangentially touch you or your practice, this theme is at the core of who you are and what you do every day. So your objective is easy: Take this moment to show some respect (don’t keep it to yourself)—for the judiciary, for our profession, for one another, and for yourself. Now that’s impact!

James A. Reeder Jr.

The author is chair of the Section of Litigation and a partner with Jones Day, Houston.

Copyright © 2021, 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).