“What Have You Done for Your Country Lately?”
by Scott M. McElhaney
Inaugural Address given on January 11, 2014
Someone from whom I learned many things was my first boss after law school—Judge Barefoot Sanders. I had the great privilege of serving as a law clerk for him after I graduated. Many of you knew him too. He probably swore most of you in to practice before the Northern District of Texas.
Judge Sanders taught all of us many things by the example he set. He was universally respected for his dedication to public service. He was admired for the way he treated everyone with respect; there was no arrogance or superiority about him.
After my clerkship, fellow former clerks and I would regularly visit his chambers for lunch, where tuna sandwiches, jalapeños and Fritos were always on the menu. One thing he always asked as we arrived was: “What have you done for your country lately?”
The message in what Judge Sanders was saying is something that I—and I think all of us—should constantly be reminded of. It is essentially this: all of us have a responsibility to attend to the needs of others. And we as lawyers have a unique role to play.
Judge Sanders’ message starts with the Biblical injunction “From whom much is given, much is expected” and emphasizes that what is expected of us as citizens—and especially as lawyers—is service to the public. We have been given many advantages—to live at this time and in this country, and to be part of a great learned profession. We thus have an obligation not just to chase the next client, or case or billable hour, but also to take some time out of our day or week to do what we can to help those less fortunate than ourselves.
Of course, this idea is not new. When he sat on the New York Court of Appeals, Justice Benjamin Cardozo called membership in the bar “a privilege burdened with conditions.” Being a lawyer meant that you were given the right to practice law, but it also meant inclusion in what he called an “ancient fellowship for something more than private gain” that included becoming “an instrument or agency to advance the ends of justice.”
What we do in our practices—the cases we win or the deals we close—may be important to ourselves, to our partners or to our firms, and they may increase our reputation or even our compensation. But practically every religion in the world tells us that, if we put our greatest hopes in achieving fame or power or money, we will inevitably be disappointed. Working for others—or as Judge Sanders put it, doing something for your country—helps fulfill our responsibilities to society. And it helps us personally. As Ghandi recognized, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Our community also expects more from us as lawyers than working just for private gain. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that lawyers ranked at the bottom of all of the occupations measured when people were asked whether the group contributed to society’s well-being. Only 18 percent thought lawyers did so. And that was down from a 23 percent figure the last time the survey was conducted. Now, much of that comes from the same basic fact that explains why there are so many lawyer jokes: People usually interact with lawyers when there is some problem or conflict, and even if a person has a “good” lawyer on his or her side, there is a lawyer on the other side who is perceived to be standing in the way. But there are still ways to address the declining perception of lawyers.
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Doing something for your community, or country, is the surest way to fulfill our responsibilities. This is true if that something is responding to an educational system that, while improving, still faces challenges in its efforts to graduate enough students ready for good jobs or higher education. It is also true if that something is responding to the legal needs of our neighbors who, as former DBA president Frank Stevenson has put it, bring not a lavish retainer, but only heartbreaking need.
Thanks to many of you here, we have much to be proud of. This Bar Association has a long tradition of doing its share of carrying out our responsibilities as profession. Mark Twain said that few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example, and the good examples that you have set surely continue to inspire others to do the same.
You served students from Dallas and across the State through a host of educational programs.
· You have shown over 350 students this year that they can succeed in school and become whatever they want to through our E-mentoring program.
· You have educated students about the legal system through our Law in the Schools and Lawyers in the Classroom programs and through the essay, art and photography contests you run in connection with our annual Law Day Luncheon.
· You helped coordinate Appealing to the Public, which gives hundreds of DISD students an up-close look at how courts approach competing sides of legal arguments through the appellate process.
· You recruited law firms to hire 30 DISD students through the Summer Law Intern Program last summer so students could learn about working in a law firm and gain valuable experience in the working world.
· And you put on the State’s High School Mock Trial program by writing the case as well as running and serving as judges for the Dallas area, Metroplex area and state-wide tournaments in which about 2,000 students from across the state participated.
Members of the Dallas Bar have also served the broader community and those in need.
· You collected school supplies for needy elementary school children.
· You sponsored open forums on important topics though our Public Forum programming.
· And you built the DBA’s 22nd Habitat for Humanity home, continuing our tradition of being the longest running whole-house sponsor in the area.
· Perhaps most importantly—given that only we are permitted to practice law—you gave your time to support legal services for those who cannot afford it.
· You staffed phones for free consultations twice per month through our LegalLine project.
· You volunteered at the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Project’s 11 clinics, going out into the community to meet and advise people at places such as the VA Hospital and the Martin Luther King Center.
· And as volunteer attorneys you took over 1,000 cases last year for which people needed full representation. By taking these cases, you saved families from eviction based on false allegation of wrongdoing; you obtained restraining orders against abusive boyfriends of single mothers; you helped custodial parents reunite with children who had become pawns in custody battles; and you protected elderly neighbors from disreputable repair shops that demanded ten times what they had contracted to charge.
These are all great achievements for which we are justly proud. But there is more that needs to be done. While we provided assistance in court over a thousand times, and advice and counseling thousands of more times, there were still hundreds who came to us seeking legal help but were turned away because there were not enough volunteers available.
Now it may be said that providing legal assistance to those who cannot afford it is difficult in a time that combines lawyer layoffs, intensifying competition for work, and client pressure for lower rates.
Of course, similar things could have been said at any time over the past few decades. Changes in technology and the economy affect legal practice in much the same way they affect other industries, and these changes are real and sometimes difficult. But if you were to peruse bar journal articles from 30 or 40 years ago, you would find the same sentiments. The refrain that the practice of law is becoming more like running a business has been with us for a very long time.
More troublesome, though, is the view expressed among some cynics that serving the community (and even bar membership) has changed from an essential duty into a needless expense.
However, adapting to changing circumstances while preserving our essential traditions and values makes what we do a profession that has endured for centuries. And one of the central traditions and values our profession has stood for is helping those who need legal help but who cannot afford it.
Over the 140-year history of this Bar Association, we have seen great economic, political and social changes. Within the lifetimes of many of us here tonight, Dallas has changed from a regional city of less than 300,000 to the center of the country’s 4th-largest metropolitan area, with 6.7 million people.
We have changed from an Association in which applications for membership by African-Americans were not acted upon to a place where having presidents, officers and directors of color is commonplace.
And, gender roles have changed dramatically. One former (and now deceased) president’s inaugural address saluted women by explaining that “Lawyers need wives more than anybody does” because helping a lawyer “enjoy victory” or giving “solace in defeat” “comes best from his wife.” Unpacking all of the assumptions about gender roles in that talk would take quite a while. Now, thankfully, things are different. Four of the last 10 DBA presidents have been women. And for the second time, all of the presidents of our sister bar associations are women.
During the course of this year, we are going to take a look back at some of these changes. This year is the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and a group led by Kevin Wiggins, Ed Cloutman, Betsy Julian and Richard Stewart—among several others—is helping to plan a series of events commemorating the need for and achievements of the Civil Right Act. I encourage you to attend and support these events.
So while the DBA has seen many changes, there is an ongoing tradition of service that we must carry on. There is a spirit in this Bar Association that recognizes that serving those less fortunate than ourselves by providing legal representation to the poor is one of the things that makes our profession great, and the DBA one of the best bar associations in the country.
It is this spirit that moved Merrill Hartman in 1982 to start showing up at the Bethlehem Center, a low-income day-care center in South Dallas, on Tuesday evenings to visit with anyone who needed legal help. It is this spirit that motivated Judge Hartman, Will Pryor, Bernda Garrett and Chris Reed-Brown to then start the South Dallas Legal Clinic at the MLK Center. And it is this spirit that expanded that clinic to 10 other places around town and instituted the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program.
Today, the poor and growing numbers of the middle class are going without representation and thus access to the justice system. The Legal Services Corporation says that more than 60 million Americans qualify for its services—34 percent more than in 2005—but 80 percent of the legal needs of the poor go unmet. Here in Dallas, more than 600,000 people have an income low enough to qualify for pro bono legal services. And the need burdens both parties and the courts. Judge Tena Callahan reports that about half of the 25,000 cases in her family court have a party trying to represent him- or herself.
An ABA Study last year found that the average amount of pro bono service provided by attorneys was 56.5 hours per year. If those of us who have not found time to volunteer at a legal clinic or take one of the DVAP cases that go unclaimed were to do so and come close to lawyers’ average pro bono time commitment, our country and our profession would be so much the better for it. Taking these cases makes us better lawyers, as we will learn new skills and sharpen those that we have. It will also make us better citizens, as we will help fulfill the promise of justice for all.
The things that make me proud to be a lawyer are rooted in helping others. I suspect the same is true for you. This year will bring opportunities to become involved and contribute your time. I hope you will take advantage of them.
Of course, we all have responsibilities to our practices and our families. But focus on personal financial stability alone is ultimately not the only measure of success. In the last 30 or so years, the average American house has become 50 percent bigger and we have modern conveniences that were previously unimaginable, but economists and psychologists report that we have not grown happier as a result. Focusing on the rat race is ultimately insufficient. As has been said, if you win a rat race, you are still a rat.
I am honored by the opportunity to serve as president of the Dallas Bar. I will do my best. I will also be thinking about Judge Sanders’ question. I realize, though, that neither I nor the officers and directors of the Bar can accomplish anything of significance without your help. Now, I understand that Twain noted that “to be good is noble; but to show others how to be good is nobler and also no trouble.” But just as I view this year as an opportunity to challenge myself, I want to encourage you to help continue the best traditions and values of the Bar by thinking about what you have done for your country lately and what you can do to bring justice for all.