After citing the highlights of ABA Medal recipient John D. Feerick’s many achievements, ABA President Linda Klein said he was “most known for his compassion, his humility, his dedication to others.” She presented the association’s highest honor at the Aug. 12 General Assembly at the ABA Annual Meeting in New York City.
Just two years out of law school when he drafted the 25th Amendment to the Constitution on presidential inability and succession, Feerick spent 20 years at Skadden, Arps, Slater, Meagher & Flom, where he founded the firm’s labor and employment practice. In 1982, he began a 20-year tenure as dean of Fordham Law School, which established nationally recognized programs in legal ethics, public interest law, clinical legal education and international human rights.
In addition, he founded the school’s Center for Social Justice, which was named in his honor. At Fordham, Klein said, he is known as “St. John the Good.”
A renowned dispute resolution expert, Feerick mediated many high-profile disputes and negotiations involving the NBA, NFL and other parties. In addition, he contributed to the Northern Ireland peace talks.
“A great friend” of the ABA, Feerick was the first chair of the ethics committee of the Dispute Resolution Section and has been active in the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, among many other roles.
Calling him “a giant in the legal community,” Klein said, “John is a model of what a lawyer should be.”
Feerick accepted the medal in honor of his parents, who immigrated separately to the United States from County Mayo in Ireland in the 1920s. After thanking his wife and “moral compass,” Emily, his six children and 11 grandchildren, he spoke of his heroes, including:
- John F. Kennedy, “for whom I cast my first presidential vote,”and whose eloquence to serve “affected me greatly”
- His Fordham Law School dean, William Hughes Mulligan, “who aspired us to excellence” and made “us feel confident in ourselves and our abilities”
- His mentors at SkaddenArps, including Leslie Arps, a World War II veteran and investigator of corruption on the New York waterfront, “who set a high moral benchmark” and William R. Meagher, who modeled “civility, courtesy and decency in the practice of law”
- “Scores of other role models” he found in the ABA, including Sen. Birch Bayh and Justice Lewis Powell Jr.
- The "incomparable” Judith Kaye, the late chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals.
“Their voices are with me today,” he said.
Feerick spoke of a 14-page book he wrote for his grandchildren “where I tried to distill the lessons of my lifetime as a lawyer.” In it, he emphasizedthe importance of service, urging them to conduct “themselves with old-fashioned honesty and respect for law.”
“Help strangers who come into your life,” he advised, especially the poor. “We can make small differences in the world.”
Feerick pointed to Thurgood Marshall as an exemplar of law at its best. “He demonstrated how [law] could be used for good in the fight for equality.”
Saying he shared with previous ABA Medal recipients the “ethic of service,” Feerick urged his fellow lawyers to help address the access-to-justice gap. “Volunteering is contagious and can make a difference,” he said.
He closed by saying, “I’ve done my best and used what God gave me and the moral codes and values my parents instilled in me. I hope to keep it going awhile longer until I have used up every bit of myself.”
The assembly was bookended by musical performances. The Paula Boggs Band opened the proceedings, with Boggs, a longtime House of Delegates member and now full-time musician performing covers as well as original compositions.
Before Feerick spoke, the New York City Bar Chorus serenaded their former president with a lineup of Broadway show tunes, and after the proceedings the chorus and the band collaborated on “Benediction,” a song Boggs wrote.