Recently I had the rare opportunity to speak to 120 doctors about what I knew they would perceive as one of the justice system's successes - a case that led to this group of physicians spending a Saturday learning about how to better serve their patients with autism and how to advocate for them with insurance companies.
I happened to preside over the class action that funded the training, so I was asked to welcome the physicians to the conference. This was a chance to try to sell a room full of the legal system's critics on the idea that the law and the justice system can be used for good in the lives of individual people.
"Twenty-five years ago, I broke the news to my parents that I had been accepted to Harvard Law School," I began. "I say 'broke the news' because both of my parents were doctors. The phrase 'those (G-d) lawyers' was a common one at our dinner table growing up."
Both of my parents were academics - my Dad was an academic pathologist. No one knows more than an academic pathologist, at least according to them. As it happens, my father is a pulmonary pathologist and frequently testified as an expert witness in asbestos cases. He often bemoaned the legions of lawyers who would show up and take notes at a deposition. "Why are they wasting their lives this way?" His real problem with the profession was that as a scientist, he thought truth comes in three flavors: true, false and unknown. Lawyers see "truth" as a more complicated concept.
I will never forget the moment I told my father I would be going to law school. "You are going to be a liar, like all the rest of them!" he growled.
I dedicated myself at that moment to proving him wrong. I knew that lawyers were not all the same, and that some served the public in a whole variety of ways - whether helping people to resolve disputes peacefully or working in public service. Regular readers of this column know I chose the latter path.
As an attorney, I remember a homeless client who desperately wanted drug treatment, but who was afraid of losing all of his belongings while he spent a few months in jail. I found a place to store his things, and that made all the difference. Maybe a year later he and a friend ran into me on the street; he told me he was still sober, and his friend thanked me for enabling him to enjoy his wonderful friend. Someone waiting for the bus alongside me spoke up: "I don't know what you do," she said. "But it must be something good."
I had coffee the other day with a friend who had recently been divorced. She extolled her lawyer's ability to calm the waters and zealously advocate for her at the same time. There is no higher compliment for a family law attorney.
For all my father's crankiness about the civil bar, we all know there are times when class actions rectify wrongs for hundreds if not thousands of people. We know there are times when a good defense attorney will save a company and all the jobs it provides. And we know that sometimes the only reason an injured person can avoid a life of poverty subsisting on Social Security disability payments is when a plaintiff's attorney takes a big risk on her behalf.
I don't know what those grateful clients sound like, because as a judge I am deliberately shielded from hugs, tears and celebrations. No wonder our Drug Court judges love the graduation ceremonies when they finally get to hug defendants as they dismiss the charges against them.
Often for judges the satisfaction comes just from watching the system work as it is supposed to, with a jury making a decision on behalf of the community after a well-tried case. I remember a child-sex case I presided over involving an Ethiopian defendant. His conviction caused great consternation in the Ethiopian community and my courtroom was filled with the community's elders at sentencing.
Through an interpreter I explained how 12 people who did not know the defendant heard testimony under oath from many witnesses and then they were instructed on the law by the court, and then they went into a little room and met by themselves to determine whether the State had proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. "I ask you," I told them, "to do as I do, and respect the verdict of the jury." While I cannot know for sure, this explanation appeared to soothe their rage.
Every so often though, a letter will arrive out of the blue from someone who appeared before a judge years ago. As I write this column, Judge Barbara Mack forwarded to me a heartwarming note from a mother proud of her son's achievements. "If it were not for people like yourself and [his probation officer] I am unsure of where we would be. I loved how you worked so hard for [the Division of Child and Family Services] to help my family. I cannot say thank you enough."
It is moments like this that make all of us, lawyers and judges alike, get up every morning with renewed dedication to our jobs. In the autism treatment class action, a moment like this came for me after the final orders were signed when my bailiff told me that she could tell me that the woman who cleaned our courtroom wanted to pass on her thanks. Now her son could finally receive the treatment he needed.
I hope my father is convinced. There is nobility in our work in the legal profession.
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