Tradition of Excellence Award: “The Calling to Become a Virtuous Lawyer”
On June 7, 2019, Ken Shigley was presented the Tradition of Excellence Award by the State Bar of Georgia General Practice and Trial Section. It is a lifetime achievement award given annually to four lawyers and judges with long experience. Many prior recipients of the award were more illustrious and deserving. Mr. Shigley’s acceptance remarks follow:
The Calling to Become a Virtuous Lawyer
Good morning and thank you. Those of us receiving this award may have one thing in common. We have outlived our severest critics as well as many dear friends and loved ones.
Forty-two years ago yesterday, Judge Robert Noland swore me in as member of the Bar at the 1956 Douglas County courthouse that is now a “midcentury modern” museum. I wish he and his dear Betty could be here today.
The person I most wish could be here is my bride, Sally, who was my best friend and cheerleader for 35 years, and beat me on the race to the Father’s house two years ago after a 29-year sojourn with recurring brain tumors. She is with me in spirit. Our good son, Ken Jr., and his bride, Jessica, are here. Our amazing daughter, Anne, and her husband, Steve, could not make it from New Hampshire. That’s a long trip for breakfast.
Since these remarks will be published, and some younger lawyer starting out might read them, I will resist the temptation to just tell jokes and war stories.
We can make a good living in law, sometimes a very good living. But we should never forget that law is much more than a way to make money. It is not just a job or a business, but a calling. Viewed with the right perspective, the law can offer among the best opportunities to help people who are hurting and to temper and resolve human conflict.
However imperfectly, as we pursue our calling we should strive to incorporate into personal and professional life the classical virtues. You won’t always get it right – I surely haven’t – but we should keep these as our aspirational goals.
1. PRUDENCE (PRACTICAL WISDOM). The prudent lawyer can recognize that the perfect is often the enemy of the good, and that the hardest choices are not between good and bad but between good and good and between bad and bad.
In my first year as a lawyer, an old attorney told me three rules for the practice of law.
- Always get to office early on Monday because people who have been stewing about their problem all weekend will hire the first lawyer they can find Monday morning. The 2019 version of that might be a 24/7 case intake system to promptly capture prospects.
- Never let the sun set on your client’s money. When you get it in, get it out to the client. In 2019, that must include proactive dealing with liens so the client has her money free and clear when you disburse. I have a paralegal preparing for her bar exam who knows more about minimizing liens than anyone here. Above all, never even consider borrowing even five cents from your trust account. That is the road to hell.
- Always go to the bathroom before the courtroom. Some things never change.
To those three old kernels of practical wisdom I would add these:
- Continue learning and growing. I once knew a lawyer who was very proud that he had not read a book after graduating from Harvard Law School and took no continuing legal education courses beyond the bare minimum required. Don’t be that guy. Read widely both within and outside your practice niche. The minimum CLE requirement is 12 hours per year; aim for 80 or more. Get the best CLE in your practice area you can find. ICLE has a lot of great offerings. There is a lot of good material in online CLE programs you can listen to in the car or in the gym. The best CLE in your niche may be in a distant state. If so, Delta is ready when you are.
- Master your law office accounting system so that you are not overly dependent on staff, and develop a close relationship with a good CPA.
- Hire slow and fire fast. Invest in good staff. When you get a good staff person, pay more than the competition and invest in training.
- If you’re not 15 minutes early, you’re late.
2. FORTITUDE (COURAGE) involves the toughness required to stand resolute for a cause or client and work against all odds to see that justice is done, even at great personal, financial and occasionally even physical risk.
3. TEMPERANCE (MODERATION) is reasonable, common sense, healthy moderation of habits, and maintenance of a healthy balance in professional, personal and family life.
4. JUSTICE embodies a sense of fairness and morality. Though we cannot ignore economic reality, we should not be so totally focused on money that we fail to serve the cause of objective fairness.
5. FAITH motivates us to persevere and to serve even when reason tells us all is lost.
6. HOPE that out of the messy conflicts with which we must labor in the law, something good and worthwhile may somehow emerge.
7. LOVE is that unselfish concern on some level for the welfare of even the most annoying and unlovable clients, witnesses, staff, colleagues, judges, court staff and even adversaries. It should become radically unselfish and gracious, beyond mere feeling, attraction, affection or compassion. Without love, justice turns to cruelty. To manifest love for the unlovable, we need to develop both a kind of dangerous unselfishness and a capacity to exercise “tough love,” urging folks to cut out their foolishness.
Someday all our beautifully framed diplomas and certificates will wind up in a bin at an estate sale. Someone may pay fifty cents for the frames, or they may go in the dumpster. When a neighbor died a few years ago in his nineties, his Wharton MBA was found on the basement floor at the end of the estate sale. When I had an estate sale at my house recently, to downsize two years after my wife passed, some of the professionally framed certificates that I hung proudly on my office wall forty years ago went to the landfill.
Compared to the infinite scale and complexity of the universe, our lives are infinitesimally small and finite. But in this snippet of time and space we occupy, we are called to interpret the moral order of Creation into pragmatic legal solutions for the messy problems presented to us, and to use our skills to temper the chaos to which human nature gives rise.
Being able to recognize this calling and our peace-making and problem-solving abilities may allow us to regain, and live with, a degree of passion and purpose in the face of difficult circumstances and never-ending temptations to ethical compromise.
I know better than anyone that I am not truly worthy of that calling or deserving of this award, but thank you.