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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: October 2023 | Voting & Elections

Our Communities Need Their Senior Lawyers Now More Than Ever

M. Sue Talia

Our Communities Need Their Senior Lawyers Now More Than Ever

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May you live in interesting times.—Ancient Chinese Curse

Having grown up in the Vietnam era, gone through law school during Watergate and been an interested observer in the many events that followed, that Chinese curse resonates with me. There’s been no time in my life that wasn’t “interesting,” and the many conflicts we are experiencing in the present call out in a unique and immediate way for those skills and experiences that we, as lawyers, are singularly qualified to bring to bear as we work toward resolutions.

Those of us who have hung up our briefcases and legal pads, and in some cases, our gavels, are a special resource to our communities. Never has that resource been more significant and more critically needed than now.

The statement that we are a divided country is axiomatic. Those divides go deeper than at any time in my life. Many of the most significant conflicts are being fought out, not only in Washington, on Pennsylvania Avenue, but on Main Street in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods.

The thing that we all have in common, regardless of our area of specialty in practice, or political leanings is a rigorous training in the rule of law, in analysis, in critical listening, in applying the law to the facts as they appear before us, and rational discourse with those who may disagree with us. We all had to pass a Bar exam which tested our ability to analyze facts and apply appropriate law. We all, regardless of our legal specialty, spent years and in some cases decades, honing these skills in real life situations, to support a commitment to the rule of law.

Each one of us, wherever we went to law school and whatever field we chose for practice, were taught certain truths:

  • People have different analyses and interpretations of their own unique experiences.
  • There are legitimate disputes about facts and their meaning.
  • Truth matters.
  • Integrity matters.
  • Just because two people disagree on the merits does not mean that either one lacks integrity.
  • If done right, justice will ultimately prevail.

A word about facts: much is said today that various segments of society can’t even agree on a single set of facts. That is truer today than in the past. But if you step back, the difference is in degree, not the concept itself. If we weren’t used to dealing with the reality that people do disagree on facts, they have different perceptions of the impact of facts they actually agree on, and varying opinions of the law to be applied, there would be no reason to have courts. Resolving disputes such as these is the lifeblood of our profession.

At a time when many segments of our society can’t even agree on a common set of facts, a common definition of the problems that face us, much less have meaningful discussion about solutions to those problems, our unique skill sets are invaluable if we are to move on to peaceful resolutions.

If you are like me, retirement was bittersweet. After nearly 50 years in the courtroom, I knew I was going to miss it. I also knew that a new generation of lawyers were coming up who were better suited than I to address legal questions that I never dreamed of. I thought I was going to relax, wax nostalgic, and hand off the baton. Then I seriously looked at the current state of our society.

I don’t care what political, ethnic, societal, or opinions and beliefs we have. What we all share is analytical training, critical thinking, effectiveness of expression and practical experience in problem solving. I believe we all, right now, have an obligation to bring those talents to the resolution of problems society is facing NOW.  I’m not saying run for Congress, or even city council (though that may be a great idea). I’m saying get involved, let our voices be heard, and add our unique skills to resolution of the many diverse problems our communities are facing.

This isn’t the misty nostalgia of the old fire horse pawing the ground at the sound of the bell. Many of these disputes are downright nasty – there’s nothing pretty or nostalgic about them. That makes our unique skill sets, whatever our political persuasions all the more valuable. When I came up in the Watergate era, we were taught that lawyers have a duty to use their training and skills for the betterment of society. Sadly, not all the lawyers engaging in current discourse are operating from that basic principle. As a result, never has it been more important to do so than now.

I have a special shout out to those who have had the honor of wielding a gavel. Yours is a particularly precious skill set resulting from years, maybe decades, of determining relevant facts on conflicting evidence, listening carefully and without bias to competing arguments, weighing their merits, and finding appropriate resolutions to complex problems. Judges are used to cases where there isn’t an agreed set of facts and know what to do with that. Your every day started with two or more litigants who couldn’t agree on a single set of facts, much less which law should be applied to them, so start there. 

So, what can you do?

  • Write a guest column for your local paper or a thoughtful letter to the editor.
  • Be a resource to those who advocate and organize for a cause you believe in.
  • Volunteer to train the people knocking on doors in effective listening and persuasion.
  • Speak at your local library.
  • Speak to a service group; they are always looking for speakers within the community.
  • If so inclined, attend city council, school board, association board, and other community organizations and speak out if inspired to do so. Run for the board yourself if so inclined.

The fights are going to be had with or without us. Wouldn’t it be nice to bring our unique skills to the process and increase the likelihood of achieving a common solution? What could it hurt to add a trained voice of reason to the discourse?

I’d like to end this with a paean to law and lawyers. We’re seniors, probably retired, but we haven’t lost the skills and wisdom which we have learned, sometimes quite painfully over the decades which we can continue to use in the service of the law.

Blessings to all of us.