chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Litigation Journal

Spring 2024 | Joy

Ten Commandments for Being a Better Person and a Better Lawyer

Lawrence Joseph Vilardo

Summary

  • Do the kind of work for your partners that you will want an associate to do for you someday.
  • Work as hard for every client as you would want a lawyer to work for your mother or your brother or yourself.
  • Treat opposing counsel the way you want them to treat you. 
Ten Commandments for Being a Better Person and a Better Lawyer
Chonlatit Thanoosorn via Getty Images

Jump to:

Becoming an attorney takes intelligence, perseverance, and commitment. And most who make it past the bar do it only with the help of family and friends. But earning a JD and passing the bar exam do not ensure success. In fact, lessons not taught in law school or any bar review course are even more important to succeeding as an attorney and in life.

Legal rules can be looked up in a book, and case law can be researched. Life rules, on the other hand, you need to know, remember, and live by every minute of every day. So here are my life rules—10 of them learned from my parents and mentors that have helped me become a better person and a better lawyer:

Number 1: Treat everyone with the same respect. We all are different and unique. Some of us are more gifted physically; some have better personalities; some are more intelligent. But despite our differences, every one of us is a person, an individual, and therefore entitled to the same respect as everyone else.

I was blessed to start my legal career as a law clerk for one of our nation’s truly great lawyers, judges, and legal minds—Judge Irving Goldberg of Dallas. Before he became a judge, Irving Goldberg was Lyndon Johnson’s personal attorney. He was the first person President Johnson called after President Kennedy was assassinated. He was one of the founding partners of the law firm that would grow to become Akin Gump.

By any definition, Judge Goldberg was a great man. But, more important than that, he also was a very good man. I saw him interact with the chief justice of the United States and with the workers who cleaned our office every day. Judge Goldberg treated them all the same. He was patient with those who were not as smart as he was—I know because I was one of them. By his example, he taught me that one gains respect as a lawyer and a judge not by showing off and making others feel small in the process, but by the exact opposite: by being humble and showing respect for everyone.

That lesson served me well when I began my legal career. When I was assigned to file papers in a clerk’s office or to do some other basic task that I had never done before and had no idea how to do, I would tell the person behind the desk exactly that and ask for help. More often than not, that humility earned me a kind lesson from a patient bureaucrat. Even better, I made a friend who would go the extra mile for me if I needed help down the road. Of course, that’s not why you should be humble and respectful, but it is a nice benefit of being humble and treating others well.

Number 2: When you borrow something, give it back in better shape than it was when you took it. When I was young, we did not have a car. To visit family or run errands, my dad would have to borrow a car from a friend or family member. Whenever he did, he always returned it with a full tank of gas, even if it didn’t start out that way. In the same way, whenever we stayed with friends or family out of town, my mother would make sure that the beds were made and the rooms cleaned a little more neatly than when we arrived. My parents were grateful for what others gave us, and they showed that gratitude by leaving things a little bit better than they found them.

That lesson translates well into what you do as a young lawyer. When you use a form pleading that has been drafted by someone else, don’t just go through the motions of filling in the blanks. Instead, take some time to make it a little better. Proofread that notice of motion and fix the typos. Add a question to that deposition script. Show your gratitude. And make yourself a better lawyer in the process.

Number 3: Share what you have. This is one that we learned, or that we should have learned, in kindergarten or even before. And it applies to much more than just your professional life.

Just as you will benefit from those form pleadings that a partner or associate shares with you, it stands to reason that you should share your work with others. But that is just the start. Those of us who have been blessed with the opportunity to practice law owe a debt to society. Try to repay that debt by representing those who cannot afford legal services; by volunteering to serve on boards of charitable or educational institutions; by donating your time, and your dollars, to help those who are less fortunate. I don’t know about you, but I would rather have my tombstone read “He left the world a better place” than “He had a lot of stuff.”

Number 4: Don’t be a bully. This one can be especially tough for young attorneys. It’s natural to want to show the judge—and anyone watching—how smart you are. When you have the better argument or the facts are on your side, you may want to gloat and rub your opponent’s nose in it. Don’t do it. Resist the temptation. No matter how smart you are, there are lawyers smarter than you out there. No matter how good your case is this time, there will be times when your opponent will have the better argument.

My dad taught me a valuable lesson about life on the West Side of Buffalo that applies equally to life in the courtroom. Always leave the other guy a graceful way to exit, he would say. If you back him into a corner and leave him no choice, you will force him to fight. And even if you think you can take him, you might lose when you fight a desperate opponent.

I have put that lesson into practice many times in my legal career. I never tried to embarrass an opponent. Even when fighting hard for my client, I never lost sight of the dignity of my opponent and the client on the other side. And I like to think that is why I was never embarrassed in a courtroom by opposing counsel even when opposing counsel had the chance to embarrass me.

Number 5: Don’t ever start a fight; but if someone else starts one, don’t back down. At trial, during depositions, and even in difficult negotiations, tempers can run short. And while fistfights between lawyers thankfully are rare, verbal fights can be just as nasty and hurtful.

That does not mean, however, that you should back down when your adversary throws the first verbal blow or even when a judge tries to push you around. Instead, it means that you should keep your wits about you and find ways to fight back without resorting to the same tactics.

Several years ago, my mentor, my former partner, and the best lawyer I have ever known, Terry Connors, was involved in a very long and heated trial. As the trial approached its conclusion, Terry was arguing a point that the judge did not want to hear. In fact, the judge told Terry exactly that and tried to bully him out of making the point that Terry wanted to make on behalf of his client. Instead of raising his voice and insisting, as many lawyers might have done—and instead of sitting on his hands and meekly shutting his mouth, as many others might have done—Terry said this: “Your Honor, this has been a very long trial. I’m sure you are exhausted. I know that I am. But I have a job to do on behalf of my client, and I’m going to do that. I’m going to make this argument on the record so that an appellate court can consider it later on, if necessary. And I am going to do that regardless of how difficult the court makes it for me to do my job.”

Of course, the judge had little choice other than to let Terry argue his point. The moral of the story is this: If you find yourself in a deposition a few years from now and your opponent is badgering you with objections or the witness is avoiding your questions and baiting you with insults, do what Terry did: respectfully but firmly explain your intention to do what you have to do to represent your client. You’ll be surprised at how often that will disarm your opponents and get you to where you need to go.

Number 6: Never take more than you give. Everyone knows the song “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King. But not everyone may know a verse from that song that has been cut from the version most often played on the radio:

Some say eat or be eaten;

Some say live and let live.

But all are agreed, as they join the stampede:

You should never take more than you give.

The lesson is simple and obvious: To keep the stampede going, all have to give at least as much as they take. Otherwise, the stampede is diminished and eventually falls apart. Substitute “legal profession”—or, even better, “world”—for “stampede” and you will get the message.

Number 7: If it has your name on it, try to make it perfect. My dad was a printer. The name of his print shop was Vilardo Printing. My first job, when I was a teenager, was working in the print shop.

When my dad would print letterhead or business cards or invitations, they not only had to look straight, they had to be straight. That meant measuring what you printed by using your fingernail on a metal rule to make sure that the line on one end of the card or page was the same distance from the edge of the paper as the same line at the other end. And in my dad’s shop, you had to use a brass rule, not a lead rule, to measure. That’s because lead is a soft metal and your fingernail might make a slight indentation in the lead, which would cause the measurement to be off slightly. Brass was hard, so your measurement would be more precise.

Of course, no one’s eye is good enough to notice any difference between a line measured with a lead rule and one measured with a brass rule. Regardless, my dad wanted it to be perfect. Especially because the business name was Vilardo Printing, he refused to take even minor shortcuts. He wanted people to associate our name with only the highest quality.

When you practice law, every letter you write, every pleading you sign, every brief you submit has your name on it. Make sure it is perfect, or as close to perfect as you can get it. Proofread everything, and then proofread everything again. Check and double-check your citations. Don’t ever send a letter, sign a pleading, or file a brief unless and until you are proud of it. Remember: That’s your name on it.

Number 8: Remember that reputations are hard to earn but easy to lose. The quality of your work is not the only thing that others will associate with your name. Even more important, others will judge you by your integrity.

So be scrupulously honest in everything you do. Never make a factual statement in a brief or at oral argument unless you are sure it is true. It will take many years to build and earn a reputation for honesty and integrity, but it will take only one lie to an opponent or one false statement in a brief to destroy that reputation. A lawyer’s reputation is the lawyer’s most valuable asset. There are lots of jokes about dishonest lawyers. Don’t be the punch line for one of them.

Number 9: Understand that your character is what you do when no one is watching. Temptations are everywhere for all of us. No one will ever know that you worked only six-tenths of an hour on that letter even though you billed a point seven. Why actually work on those motion papers when you can get by with—and bill your client for—a set of papers that someone did already? And I can do a passable cross-examination without preparing. Who will ever know?

You will. Even when you’re alone in your office, do what you would do if the whole world were watching. Do it for yourself. And if that’s not enough reason, do it because if you fudge and take shortcuts, all that will eventually catch up with you. Karma should not be taken lightly.

All that leads us to the 10th commandment, which is really a summary of the first nine: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do the kind of work for your partners that you will want an associate to do for you someday. Work as hard for every client as you would want a lawyer to work for your mother or your brother or yourself. Treat opposing counsel the way you want them to treat you. Do all that and you will have a long and rewarding career in a fabulous profession in the greatest legal system in the world. 

This article is adapted from the keynote address given by Judge Vilardo at the bar admission ceremony in Rochester, New York, in 2016. The address has been reprinted in the Erie County (New York) Bar Bulletin and The Circuit Rider: The Journal of the Seventh Circuit Bar Association (April 2017).

    Author