I worked at the law firm Smith Duggan for 22 years. I retired on October 31, 2016, when I had just turned 66 years old. Ever since I started working at age 16 I had dreamed of retirement when I could do whatever I wanted every day. Smith Duggan gave me a very nice dinner at which I gave a little speech. I just re-read it, and thought, "Wow, that was pretty good." So I thought I would share it.
Before I go I thought I should share some of the important things I have accomplished during my legal career.
1. I have filled out 6,053 time sheets with 30,256 entries.
2. I have spent 29,920.3 hours in front of a computer.
3. I have sent 330,921 work-related emails, on a private server, and received 167,510 desired emails, plus 2,787,133 spam emails.
4. I have traveled to numerous nooks and crannies of American geography, including Joplin, Missouri, where they had the foresight to specialize in lead and then asbestos, Fresno, California, Mankoto, Minnesota, in the winter, Ashland, Kentucky, where the steel mill has been idle for a year due to lack of orders, and Chouteau, Oklahoma, where they have two massive, dirty, noisy, hot coal-fired generating plants, and I have stayed in some of the country’s smelliest hotels. I have been frozen by wind and rain in Iowa. I visited, several times, a town with more oil refineries than book stores, back when there were bookstores.
But enough about my accomplishments.
When I was about 25 years old, I was a volunteer in the Big Brother program. My little brother, George, aged 11, spoke so poorly that many people could not understand him; he was normally covered with dirt of some kind. But he was so sweet and friendly that everybody loved him, including me. One day we went to see the movie Swiss Family Robinson. It was a matinee in an old theater in Troy, NY, and not crowded on a Saturday afternoon. George was very engrossed in the movie. In one scene, shortly after a lovely girl named Becky had appeared, also marooned on island, the rivalry for her affection culminated in a fight between the Robinson brothers, wrestling in the dirt. By this time, George is no longer sitting, but standing because of his excitement. Then Dad enters, the boys jump up to face their father, who demands to know “who started this?”
George instantly shouted ‘“I did”.
My work life has been an effort to experience the kind of total immersion and intensity that George exhibited that day, where we are so intensely involved in what we are doing that no distractions can penetrate and where time disappears. The greatest enemy is boredom.
This kind of intensity has been found in a series of problems where figuring out what happened in an accident was needed. Some lawyers are concerned more with what a jury might later perceive has happened, but I have been lucky enough to have had a client who was willing to have me pursue what did happen. It has always made more sense to me to live in the real world; how can we improve things if we deceive ourselves about the world around us? This kind of self-deceptions is rampant today, where, for example, a large part our fellow citizens do not accept the theory of evolution, one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time. Or where everyone pretends that free trade is a bad thing even though it has brought many benefits far outweighing the losses.
I have spent hundreds of hours studying photographs and, in one case, caught an expert flat out committing perjury about what he had done. Advocacy at times has run amok and the self interest of the participants in the judicial process can distort the goals we hold for it.
On some days you could find me spending hour after hour trying to understand engineering drawings, to see how something was supposed to work, why it did or did not.
Certainly every experienced attorney, including me, has encountered lawyers and experts who were completely despicable and avaricious, and those who were completely trustworthy. We have encountered lawyers who were so poor at what they were doing that we felt bad for their client, and I have encountered others who were better than I was, in which case I felt bad for me.
One scary crazy guy was Tom Keefe, a lawyer in the legal hellhole of southern Illinois. He prided himself on the ability to get a defendant to lose it at some point, and he started with his email address of “[email protected]” Keefe was another breed, needing constant feeding of his ego and “winning” every encounter.
We had a scheduling hearing with Keefe. The hearing was scheduled for 9:00 am along with 50 others. The courtroom was filled with lawyers. In walks Keefe, not through the doors for the public, but through the door that leads to the judge’s lobby. He was wearing a worn out, white, v-neck t-shirt, faded orange running shorts, and Dockers with no socks.
He asked “what were we doing sitting out there; let’s go se the judge.” He led us back through the door, which led to the hallway where the offices of the judges were located. We followed him into several offices, where he introduced me as his friend from Boston and told each judge that I had gone to Harvard.
Finally, we saw our judge, where Tom apologized for his clothes by saying that he had spilled mustard on his go-to-court clothes and this was all he had. Nobody said a word to him. Fortunately, he was an outlier.
I have seen many people weeping when asked what happened to them or to someone they loved. Some witnesses have been so frightened by the deposition that they could barely speak, and others who got angry. And regarding emotional responses to depositions, I have one regret; I have never gotten an expert to cry in a deposition, even when I though they should have.
I know it may be hard to believe, but I have never been very concerned with clothing.
I worked along side a GE engineer in one case in which a GE employee was shocked badly while working on GE switchgear. GE’s engineer-investigator had flown to the job site the next day, interviewed every person who knew anything about the accident, and gathered and studied hundreds of pages of material. After learning all this and thinking about it, he found several factors that contributed to the accident, and he prepared a plan to try to prevent it from ever recurring. He did this in 30 days after the accident. So how long do a lawsuits take and how much do they cost to get to the same level of understanding. He was not seeking to blame anyone, or determine who should pay for the accident. Why, I wonder, don’t we treat every serious accident this way? We would have more accurate and more consistent results for far less money.
And many times I have wondered whether being a lawyer was a good thing, should I have done something else? and the answer is always mixed. At times attorneys are rude aggressive inconsiderate. But the profession usually encourages one thing: it helps individuals and our society cope with the kind of accidents we are dealing with. People eventually accept the results, even if they do not agree with them. After witnessing some ugly behavior at a political event, George Saunders wrote these words in a recent article in the New Yorker.
“This . . . is why we practice civility. This is why, before we say exactly what is on our minds, we run it past ourselves, to see if it makes sense, is true, is fair, has a flavor of kindness, and won’t hurt someone or make someone’s difficult life more difficult.”
So I leave you with two sentiments: I hope you as often as possible experience work with the kind intensity that George felt watching the Robinson brothers fight, and that we all strive to demonstrate and find in others the civility that Saunders described.