Stay Gold My Friends
Idealism and the Practice of Law
Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay. Robert Frost
I frequently receive messages from prospective clients with highly specific needs and requests like: “My son has a probation detainer for failing to report” or “I was injured in a car accident and need representation.” Occasionally however, I will hear from someone with a vague and troubling message such as; “An injustice has been done and an innocent person is in jail.”
Wow! Even the most jaded criminal defense lawyer is going to be stopped in his tracks by that one. I have likened our practice to trauma center physicians at times. We triage situations in an effort to function more efficiently. So this is the equivalent of a patient walking in and saying; “I think I’m having a heart attack.”
I consider it my solemn duty to take my clients at their word and defend each of them to the absolute ends of advocacy. I frequently use a tool that I find helpful. I imagine myself in their shoes, coming into my office. except I try to consider how helpless I might feel if for instance I was walking into, let’s say, a cardiologist’s office. I’m scared. I don’t know the lingo. Am I exaggerating my symptoms? Am I forgetting anything? My point is this; Do I want a Doctor sitting there thinking; “This guy probably just has indigestion”?
It can be hard to retain the idealism that hopefully drove us all to the study of law. The world is often an ugly place and our practice can appear especially so. People, clients and colleagues will lie to you. . . a lot. Should this force us to abandon those early ideals, “nature’s first green”? Must Eden, of necessity, sink to grief?
For me, the”early leaf” that inspired my love of the law was an undergraduate class at Temple University that required viewing the “Fred Friendly tapes” in the Samuel Paley Library. I can’t remember if they were on VHS or Betamax. Anyway, Fred Friendly was this brilliant broadcater that created a 13 part PBS series of “The Fred Friendly Seminars” titled The Constitution — That Delicate Balance.
Friendly’s introduction was: “Our job is not to make up anyone’s mind, but to open minds — to make the agony of decision-making so intense that you can escape only by thinking.” Think of the prescient wisdom of those words in our world today. He went on to become the Edward R. Murrow professor of broadcast journalism at Columbia University and his legacy is lovingly described by Nat Hentoff in his article for the Cato Institute, “When the Constitution Came Alive on TV”. “The series had a significant afterlife as a widely used teaching tool in high schools and colleges. Soon after the broadcasts of the series, more than 200 colleges acquired a set of the videocassettes.” Ralph Engelman Friendlyvision (Columbia University Press, 2009). Hentoff called for a re-airing of the series to provide for “the need for a dramatic remedial education of Americans, including our youngest generation, that our national identity is based on the Bill of Rights, the separation of powers and other rights and liberties in that document that makes our survival as a free people more than a Fourth of July flag-waving”.
Watching those tapes sparked my interest in the law and cemented my desire to becme a lawyer. I bring this up not to brag about what a great scholar I was, (I wasn’t), but simply to illustrate that in law, as in every profession, we must continually remind ourselves of what first inspired us when we were most passionate and full of ideals, when the idea of an innocent person behind bars seemed an abomination and not an all too frequent reality. Surely, this is the “hardest hue to hold”.
My New Year resolution and wish for my friends, clients, colleagues and readers of this blog is that we all remember that idealistic, naive young man or woman we once were and instead of feeling chagrin at our collective naivete, to celebrate all that was pure and righteous and golden.
Stay Gold my friends.
Happy New Year.
The Prodigal of Passyunk Avenue