Remarks to Bar Leadership Class of 2011

John R. Wester

February 3, 2011

 

 

I encourage us all to reflect on the moment at hand, especially for the Class of 2011.

 

You come to this leadership opportunity on the precipice of an historic moment -- the centennial of the Mecklenburg County Bar.  Nearly a hundred years of lawyers in this county have come before you.  You -- and all of us here this evening -- stand on their shoulders.

 

When Henry David Thoreau -- in the middle of the 19th century -- was considering the meaning and purpose of a full life, I believe he was speaking to all of us -- especially to those who have the privilege and honor of leadership -- when he wrote these words:

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams -- and endeavors to live the life that he has imagined -- he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.

 

Thoreau's wisdom is enduring because his lesson is timeless.  Advancing confidently, endeavoring to live the life you have imagined, is paramount -- especially for those who would lead.  Waiting around for your ideas to take hold, to gain favor, will not avail you.

 

There are no convenience stores where one can purchase a lottery ticket for leadership.

 

I have watched worthwhile organizations of a diverse nature, including bar organizations, long enough to have felt moments of high optimism -- and the very opposite moments.  In nearly every case, the dividing line has been the quality of leadership.

 

I believe what I believe about leadership based on what I have seen for myself.  Some who are elected or selected to leadership positions -- in our bar, in our charities, in our churches, in our government -- hold as their dearest ambition a completion of their service when no or de minimis controversy arose and, better still, when no criticism of them came to light.  They collect their plaques or certificates at the end of their terms to warm applause, and then they drift away.

 

These individuals do not lack for intelligence, or for good intentions, or even for character -- but the organizations choosing them as leaders lose out -- and lose a great deal.  These losses come because of the lesson the turtle teaches us time and again: he makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.

 

The times we live in -- the challenges the year 2011 presents to this bar, to this county, to this state, and to this nation -- are more than demanding.  The stakes are too high to find contentment in caretaking. 

 

There are abundant, compelling opportunities for leadership before us today.  Not only for this Class of 2011, but for all the rest of us in this room this evening -- and for all in our profession.

 

One such opportunity -- to speak of only one -- is as simple as it is confounding: how to answer the needs that only lawyers can meet of those who must have legal advice but cannot pay for it.  How many here know these three real facts:

·         3 million people in North Carolina qualify for legal services assistance, approximately 30% of our state's population.

 

·         There is one legal services lawyer for every 18,000 eligible citizens in this state.  Faith Fickling is a member of our Leadership Class of 2011.  She is a lawyer with Legal Aid of North Carolina.  She is making her mark with distinction.  Consider that 18,000 North Carolinians are eligible to be her clients, hers alone.  If you add Ken Schorr, the executive director of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, you are looking at a client base of 36,000 North Carolinians in these two lawyers.

 

·         What do clients qualifying for legal services assistance need most of all?

Safety, income and shelter. The primary legal needs of those living in poverty put them in the acute care ward of our daily lives: they need legal advice  for domestic violence, divorce, child custody, housing, employment benefits, and health care.  Alongside medical services, the poor in our state need legal advice for the most critical events in their lives.

 

How do we organize, how do we galvanize our profession to provide a meaningful answer to the plight of those just reviewed -- or a meaningful answer to Thoreau's question of endeavoring to live the lives we have imagined?

 

Look at this clipping from this past Tuesday -- two days ago -- in the Charlotte Observer.  Page 2B.  12-1/2 half lines advertising that the Mecklenburg Bar's Young Lawyers' Division will provide a free legal clinic this coming Saturday at the central library.

 

How many of you had seen this before this moment? Who will see this?

 

Why is there no full-page advertisement about our volunteers in the Observer?  Why not an eye-commanding piece in the online edition?  Why no radio or public service announcements?  How will those who need to see our volunteers know where they are?  Know when to show up?

 

Are we advancing in the direction of our dreams for meeting the legal needs of the poor in our own community?  What of their dreams?

 

If we get on with doing all of this better, including bringing more of our colleagues into the flock of serving the unserved, then we advance  in the direction of what is essential: for all our citizens to enjoy the benefits and protections of our system of justice.

 

One month and one day from today -- March 4, 2011 -- is 4-All Day, a project of the North Carolina Bar Association.  Do you know about it?  This is its fourth year.  Its statistical success -- that it is the model today for programs in many states -- merits attention from all in this room.  But I will skip all that with the observation that I have some 100 4-All volunteer cards with me here this evening.  I invite you to take one as we adjourn.

 

When I turned in my card a few weeks ago, I spoke with three lawyers who were doing the same thing.  That brought home -- it always does -- the extra benefit embedded in volunteer service.  You meet lawyers you would not meet otherwise, and all of you, every time, are joined at the hip for something you know can help thousands realize the promise of equal justice under the law.  And you will come back -- I will bet you -- and so will those you meet -- when you stick your neck out on 4-All Day.

[One vignette from last year's 4-All Day.  When I visited WBTV for my shift on the phones, I learned that Duke Law School had left a significant gap in my legal education:  cemetery headstone law.  Thus, I received proper encouragement to continue my legal education in a field I had not encountered.]

 

However you serve in the days ahead, however you lead, you will find the best servant leaders have these characteristics.

 

They will take risks.  They will rock the boat.  The very best will turn the boat over.  They will not choose their ideas by averaging the distance between the ideas of others.  The very best leaders will see the box everyone thinks inside of -- and they will take that box apart.

 

They will be thoughtful as they do so -- measuring twice or three times before they cut once -- but cut they will -- and with confidence and steadfastness that Thoreau would applaud.  That trait has much to do with what I want to leave with you as I take my leave from you now.

 

A flashback.  In the summer of 1963, civil rights groups were demonstrating, especially in the South, to end racial discrimination in education, employment, voting participation, and public accommodations.

 

One lawyer in Philadelphia, a corporate specialist named Bernard Segal, contacted a number of lawyers across the country who agreed to sign and pay for a statement that would run in all of the major newspapers in Alabama as a full-page advertisement.  It criticized Governor George Wallace's position as he was poised to block admission of African Americans to the University of Alabama.  46 lawyers signed this statement, calling for elected officials to defer to the rule of law.

 

Sticking their necks out.  Several of those 46 lawyers traveled with Attorney General Robert Kennedy to Birmingham to secure a better understanding of the troubles soon before President John Kennedy called the National Guard of Alabama into federal service.  There were recurring acts of courage and heroism by many Americans before and after this time, of course, but with these acts by these lawyers, the tide in favor of peaceful desegregation began to rise.  To be sure, it did not rise immediately or evenly, but it began to rise.

 

On June 21st, 1963, President Kennedy called together a group of 244 lawyers in the East Room of the White House.  [This is a picture of that meeting.  You can examine it when you come up here for your 4-All sign-up form.]  The President asked those assembled to use their training and influence to move the struggle for the protection of civil rights from the streets to the courts.  Thus began the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law.  I am proud that my friend Rob Harrington, a partner in our firm, was national chairman of the Lawyers Committee four years ago. 

 

As he convened these lawyers in the White House, President Kennedy repeated a question Bernard Segal had passed on to him as he was decrying the uncertain, even floundering, state of the civil rights cause at that time.  The question was:  Where are the lawyers?

 

For our time, is the real root question any different?  Where are the lawyers -- where are we?  Will our answers advance us steadfastly in the direction of our dreams?  Will we truly endeavor to live the lives that the best leaders of our profession imagined for us -- and that we can imagine for ourselves?

 

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote and spoke often of the commandment to look after those who are left out, those who are left behind -- an apt description of the many North Carolinians who live without any meaningful access to our judicial system.  For all the difficulty of the struggle, Dr. King's message carried an optimism that should stay with us:  The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

 

Let us get on with our share of the bending.

I thank the Mecklenburg Bar for this high honor.

May God bless the Class of 2011 -- and all of us.

 

 

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