NYS Bar Admission Ceremony
January 13, 2016
It really is an honor and a privilege for me to have the opportunity to talk with you for a few minutes on this momentous occasion. Today, you do more than simply start a career. Today, you join a profession. And I congratulate all of you on having the intelligence, the perseverance, and the commitment to get to where you are.
I also congratulate those who have come to celebrate with the newly admitted attorneys — their parents and siblings, their spouses and children, their families and friends. On behalf of the newly admitted attorneys, I thank you for putting up with them while they wrote their undergraduate papers, studied for their law school finals, and — especially — prepared to take the bar exam. They probably were pretty unbearable when they were studying for the bar. I know I was. And so I know that they are grateful for your patience, your love, and your support.
If you came here hoping to hear a scholarly and erudite address on the legal profession or some cutting-edge legal issue, boy are you going to be disappointed. But most of you are probably glad to hear that I am not going to talk about property or criminal law or contracts. Even though I am very excited about my new job as a federal judge, I am not going to talk about civil procedure or federal courts. And I certainly am not going to talk about secured transactions or antitrust. I couldn’t talk about those last two even if I wanted to.
I am, however, going to talk about what you need to know in order to become a successful attorney. I am going to talk about things that you learned not in law school or in college or even in high school. Instead, I am going to talk about the really important stuff — the stuff I learned from my parents and that you may have learned from yours. Legal rules can be looked up in a book. But life’s rules you need to know, to remember, and to live every minute of every day.
So here are my life’s rules — ten commandments that have helped me be a better person and a better lawyer.
Number 1: Treat everyone with the same respect. We are all different. Some of us are more gifted physically. Some have better personalities. Some are more intelligent. Some have better hair. But 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, Texas. 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 crew of workers who cleaned our office every day. Judge Goldberg treated all of them the same. He was patient with those who were not as smart as he was. I know because I was one of them. And he taught me that one gains respect as a lawyer and a judge not by showing off how much you know 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 career as a lawyer. When I was assigned to file papers in a clerk’s office or some other basic task, I would politely tell the person behind the desk what I was supposed to do and that I really had no idea how to do it. More often than not, that humility earned me a kind lesson from a patient bureaucrat. Even more important, it made a friend who would go the extra mile for me if I needed help years later. Of course, that’s not why you should be humble and respectful. But it is a nice benefit of not being full of yourself and instead treating others the way you’d like them to treat you.
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. And whenever he did, he always would return it with a full tank of gas. 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 always grateful for what others had given us, and they showed that gratitude by leaving things a little 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 before. And it applies to much more than just your professional life.
Of course, 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 serve 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 lawyers. You want to be Joe or Josephine Lawyer. You want to show the world how much you learned in law school. You want to show the judge how smart you are. When you have the better of the argument, you want to rub your opponent’s nose in it.
Don’t do it. Resist the temptation. No matter how smart you are, I promise you that there are lawyers smarter than you out there. And no matter how good your case is this time, there will be times when your opponent will have the better of the 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 she 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 get short. And while fist fights between lawyers are thankfully rare, verbal fights can be just as nasty and hurtful.
But that does not mean 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, former partner, and the best lawyer I know, 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 just 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.”
What else could the judge do other than let him argue his point? So if you are in a deposition a few years from now and your opponent is badgering you with objections, or the witness is avoiding answering your questions or baiting you with insults, try this: Ms. Attorney or Mr. Witness, it’s my job to ask questions and get answers. I plan to do that. I’ve tried to do that respectfully, and I will continue to try to do it respectfully. But I am going to ask the questions — some of them hard questions — and I am going to get answers. If that means we have to stay here hours longer, we’ll do that. And if I have to get the court to help me get the answers to my questions, we’ll do that too. But your objections or insults or dirty looks are not going to stop me from doing my job — from asking the questions and getting the answers — that I need to do on my client’s behalf.
You’d be surprised at how often that will disarm your opponents and get you to where you need to go. And if it doesn’t — if the other side is simply intent on starting a fight — the judge who decides who wins that fight will be impressed with your efforts to resolve it reasonably.
Number 6: Never take more than you give. I’ll bet when some of you were kids, you saw “The Lion King” at the movies. I’ll bet all of you have seen it on the big or small screen or on stage. And I’ll bet you all know the song “The Circle of Life.” But there is a verse from that song that’s 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 get the point.
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 letterheads 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 have noticed any difference between a line measured with a brass rule and a line measured with a lead rule. Regardless, my dad wanted it to be perfect. Especially because the business name was Vilardo Printing, he refused to take even minor short cuts because 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 at least 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: And 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. 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 may be her 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 short cuts, all that will eventually catch up with you. Karma is not something to take lightly.
All that leads us to the tenth commandment — sort of a summary of the first nine — and that’s the golden rule: 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.
Welcome to the Bar.