From the President: Heroes

Older lawyers and younger lawyers may not share the same legal heroes. All lawyers should identify legal heroes and think about how they can benefit from the examples their heroes set.

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“The best thing I did was to choose the right heroes.”
Warren Buffett  

“I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people.” 
Maya Angelou 

“Poor is the nation that has no heroes, but poorer still is the nation that having heroes, fails to remember and honor them.” 
Marcus Cicero  

At a recent NACDL meeting, I had an interesting conversation with an NACDL past president about whether certain traditional legal heroes, Clarence Darrow and Atticus Finch were the examples cited, resonate at all with law students and younger lawyers who are just starting their legal careers. Darrow is revered by many not just for being one of the greatest lawyers of all time, but also for being a radical. He wore his political views on his sleeve. He championed cases and causes that aligned with those views. While his ethics could be questioned, the sincerity of his beliefs and his effectiveness as a lawyer could not. Finch is revered for precisely the opposite reasons. He did not aspire to represent Tom Robinson. He did so because the court appointed him — and because no one else would. Finch wore nothing on his sleeve. He led by quiet example. While he did not represent Robinson very effectively, it was the act of representing him, the act of standing up for someone when no one else would, that enshrined Finch as a hero.

Two different models, but both were legal heroes to generations. Yet, can they resonate with the coming generations of lawyers? There are no YouTube videos of Darrow giving a closing argument. Finch appears only in a book or on a black and white screen. If the message is the medium, they are plainly stale. Beyond the medium itself, there are other fundamental questions. Do white men from bygone eras speak to the young and increasingly diverse set of lawyers emerging from today’s law schools? Who are the modern day equivalents of Darrow and Finch? Or has the very idea of a lawyer as a hero simply become blasé?

In 2016, the country voted to determine who would succeed a two-term African American Harvard-educated legal scholar as the next president. On the Democratic side, the candidate who captured the imagination of young voters was not the Yale-trained lawyer who started her career with the Children’s Defense Fund. It was the elderly socialist. Among Democratic voters aged 44 and younger, Sanders went from a narrow 44 to 42 percent lead in October to a commanding 62 to 31 percent lead by June.

On the Republican side, the Harvard Law School graduate who had been the first Hispanic to become the Solicitor General of Texas, was the longest serving Solicitor General in Texas history, and was on the adjunct faculty of the University of Texas Law School, lost out to the real estate magnate and reality television star. While Donald Trump consistently did less well among younger voters than he did with older voters, he nonetheless won the youth vote in the majority of the contested Republican primaries.

In the general election, the lawyer did win the popular vote. But it was the reality television star who handily won the Electoral College and the presidency.

Of course, the lack of a lawyer in the White House hardly means that law students and young lawyers do not have potential lawyer role models and legal heroes. But who do young people most admire these days?

A Gallup poll in 2016 listed the following 10 most admired men and 10 most admired women, each in order of popularity: Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Pope Francis, Bernie Sanders, Rev. Billy Graham, Benjamin Netanyahu, The Dalai Lama, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, and Mike Pence; Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Angela Merkel, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Queen Elizabeth, Malala Yousafzai, Condoleezza Rice, Elizabeth Warren, and Sarah Palin. These lists reflect the political divide in this country and include leading political, religious, business, and entertainment figures. While the lists include a handful of people who hold law degrees, neither list reflects many likely legal heroes. Indeed, Elizabeth Warren is arguably the only person on either list who rose to prominence because of her work as a lawyer.

Also, remember that these lists are from surveys of adults without regard to their age. What are the results when only young people, presumably including the next generation of lawyers, are surveyed?

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In 2014, a worldwide survey of university students was conducted. Based on nominees from 24 countries, participants were asked to rank world historical leaders as heroes. The top 10 in order were: Albert Einstein, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Isaac Newton, Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, and Buddha. The list reflects scientists, humanitarians, and religious figures. Abraham Lincoln is the only lawyer/politician on the list.

Another survey was recently conducted of 1,200 children and young people in Wales. Here, the respondents were not given a list to choose from. Nor were they told to pick world historical figures. They were simply asked whom they  most admired. Here are the results in order: Jessie J, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, One Direction, Lionel Messi, Leigh Halfpenny, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jessica Ennis, and Rihanna. Not many politicians or lawyers on this list. Nelson Mandela came in 24 places behind Rihanna, in 34th place. Barack Obama was the highest ranked lawyer, weighing in at number 40.

Of course, surveys conducted internationally may yield results that are very different from surveys that seek the opinions only of Americans. For example, a 2015 survey found that Edward Snowden had a favorable rating of 84 percent in Germany and Italy and 80 percent in France, the Netherlands, and Spain. In the United States, he had an unfavorable rating of 64 percent.

Presumably, American youth would pick fewer soccer players than did the young people surveyed in Wales and, almost certainly, the Americans would pick fewer rugby players. But would they pick lawyers?

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In 2016, Newsweek surveyed over 2,000 American teenagers. The magazine asked respondents whom they most admired. The survey produced the following top three results in order: Barack Obama, Taylor Swift, and Beyoncé. Selena Gomez and Abraham Lincoln tied for fourth place. Fifty years earlier, in 1966, a similar poll produced the following results: John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Helen Keller.

It would be easy to look at these results and suggest that youth today, internationally and particularly in the United States, lack seriousness of purpose. They favor escapism. They do not want serious role models, much less lawyer role models. But I think these would be the wrong conclusions to draw.

Indulging in escapism does not indicate a failure to recognize the serious issues facing our country. The same 2016 Newsweek survey concluded that 59 percent of American teens think pop culture keeps the country from talking about the news that really matters and that 68 percent believe the United States is on the wrong track. In 1966, 44 percent of American teens thought racial discrimination would be a problem for their generation. Today, 82 percent feel that way. Among black teens, 91 percent think discrimination is here to stay, up from 33 percent in 1966.

Fortunately, many young people are not responding to these beliefs with complacency. Much was written after Ferguson about the divide between the established and aging leadership of the civil rights movement and the younger more decentralized and organic Black Lives Matter movement. But this divide was based on tactics, not goals. It was not a divide between doing nothing and doing something. It was a divide over what to do and how to do it.

Young people have always been more impatient than older adults. They have always demanded action. They have always trended more toward revolution than incremental evolution. While these generational divides are not new, they may be greater than ever as a result of the 24-hour news cycle, instant downloads, exponentially multiplying media outlets, and attention deficit-inducing video games. Would anyone today have the patience to sit in a prison cell for 27 years, confident in ultimately outlasting and hastening the demise of apartheid? Would anyone today endorse Thurgood Marshall’s strategy of an assault on Jim Crow that would take decades to accomplish? Gay marriage became the law of the land in a fraction of the time it took to lay separate but equal to rest.

So what does all this mean for legal heroes for today’s law students or young lawyers? Their hero probably will not be Darrow or Finch. It may not be Thurgood Marshall. Who the heroes are, however, is far less important than that the up and coming generations of lawyers have heroes. The new hero may be a young activist lawyer. He or she may be a lawyer who leads on social media as well as in the courtroom. Indeed, the opportunity for lawyers to lead, and to be heroes to law students and younger lawyers and inspire them to lead, may be greater than ever.

In late February of this year, The Hill published an article called “An Unexpected Trump Effect: Lawyer as Hero.” The first lines of the article read: “Almost single handedly, President Trump has made lawyers the breakout stars in the early days of his administration. Legal experts in immigration and refugee law, international trade, religious freedom, and the constitutional powers of the executive branch have, seemingly overnight, become regular guests on network and cable news, quoted on front pages of national newspapers, and gained thousands of followers on social media.”

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers will continue to be at the forefront of efforts to shape the law, policy, and culture of this country so that they bend towards justice. Whether changes come about slowly and methodically or quickly and even chaotically, systemic changes in our country require lawyers.

Our younger lawyer members and the law school students coming up behind them may not share the same legal heroes that our more experienced (I hate to say older) members do. But each of us, younger and more experienced alike, should spend some time identifying legal heroes who speak to us. We should think about who our legal heroes are and why. We should think about how they shaped the legal landscape and how we can benefit from their example. It is only by engaging in this process that we can find our own path forward. For me, it is not just Darrow and Finch; it is Edward Bennett Williams, Jack Miller, Barry Scheck, Judy Clark, Bryan Stevenson, and Jon Rapping, to name but a few. From younger lawyers, I would fully expect a different list.

But let’s not take Darrow and Finch out to the dustbin of history just yet. The hottest show in the country has been running for almost two years, captivating not only a record number of adults on Broadway, but also through its soundtrack, inspiring children across the country. It is a musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda about a lawyer-activist hero who lived a long time ago, before even Darrow or Finch.

About the Author

Barry Pollack is Chair of the White Collar & Internal Investigations Practice at Miller & Chevalier. As a former certified public accountant, a substantial focus of his practice is representing defendants in complex financial matters. He is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and of the American Board of Criminal Lawyers.

Barry J. Pollack
Miller & Chevalier
Washington, DC