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TCL > August 2003 Issue > What It Means to Be a Really Good Attorney

August 2003       Vol. 32, No. 8       Page  37
CBA President's Message to Members

What It Means to Be a Really Good Attorney
by Robert J. Truhlar

As Colorado Bar Association President, I hear of many situations in which attorneys go way above and beyond their responsibilities to help other people, and often extend a helping hand to newer attorneys just getting a start. I also have been fortunate to have many fellow members of the Bar mentor and help me. Many of these lawyers are "my heroes." Here are a few of my favorite personal experiences with attorneys. At the time, they were minor in the scheme of things, but I’ll never forget them.

Special Mentors in My Life

While in law school, I had two teachers who gave a special energy and life to teaching the law. One, a full-time faculty member, taught me how to read a case, to highlight it, and to study in general. She always seemed to enjoy the law. That was a good start. She still exhibits zest for the profession. My thanks to Professor Lucy Marsh! You have been a good friend.

The other teacher taught a night class that I attended. She made evidence come alive. This teacher practiced law all day and taught at the law school during the evenings. Having already put in a long day did not seem to affect the time she spent with us. She always was enthusiastic. I’ve always remembered that. Thank you, Mary Ewing! You still display the same love for the law that I saw more than twenty-five years ago.

At the start of my lawyering career, I assisted at a complex civil trial. On a Friday, I was sworn into the practice of law. The next week, I participated (as third chair, or perhaps footrest) in a six-week federal court trial. I prepared the reading of twenty depositions, and I carried exhibits and kept notes. I saw or heard (remember the depositions) nineteen experts testify and learned how not to get locked in the courtroom holding cell when you think you’re going into the witness room (it was someone else, not me, who locked himself in the holding cell). I was wet behind the ears and wide-eyed. I was awed by the trial skills of all the experienced lawyers in the case. I wondered how they always knew what to do and what to say. It was exciting, but I was always nervous.

One very experienced lawyer on the other side of the case made it a point to say good morning to me every day and ask me how I liked the trial. He welcomed me to the federal arena and made me feel like I had a right to be there. He told me I was a good reader. I lived for any compliment in that courtroom. He knew I was a minor character in the whole mess, but treated me like I belonged. When my side lost, the opposing attorney shook my hand and said, "You’ll have other trials." His name was Ed Kahn. I decided right then and there to always welcome a new attorney that way. It cost nothing and the result was priceless. Thanks for the lesson, Ed. You’re the best! Last year, when he received the Award of Merit from the Denver Bar Association, I told him that his early treatment of me left a lasting impression. He appreciated knowing that he made a difference in another lawyer’s life.

Later, at my first law firm, a senior attorney approached me one day and said we were going to the state courthouse (Denver) so that he could show me around. He started with the clerk’s office and he gave me a lecture about having all your pleadings properly prepared for filing. Then we went to the old files room in the basement. He showed me how to request a file. He was polite and friendly to everyone and they responded in kind.

Next, we went from courtroom to courtroom and visited each clerk’s office. If the clerk was available, the senior lawyer introduced me. Privately, he stressed how important it was to be respectful of the clerks. Leaving the building, he even gave me tips on where to park. I’ll always remember that first tour. It put me at ease for all future trips to Denver District Court. This attorney took the time to show me the ropes. Thank you, Robert Perry Smith. You’re a great guy!

Someone else who has helped me in various ways during the last twenty years is a prominent employment attorney in Denver. In 1983, I went to my first employment law seminar. There were four speakers in an afternoon half-day session. The outlines of the first three speakers all seemed to say that workers had no rights. Something about "employment-at-will." The first presenter started with an off-color joke that was not at all flattering to women. Then the last speaker got up. She was a spunky, slight lady who started by pointing out that the earlier "joke" was inappropriate and not welcomed. Wow! I was impressed by her confidence and willingness to speak up. Then she presented a completely different picture regarding the employment law rights of employees. She politely disagreed with all other speakers. I was struck with the courage of her perspective, and it interested me. I was hearing someone present "the rest of the story." It was a gift. Now I do plaintiff’s employment law. My thanks to Lynn Feiger!

The complaint in my first employment case included ten or so claims. Everything I read or heard about was in that complaint. I thought it was great. At the hearing on the Motion to Dismiss, however, the judge chastised me for my multiple claims. I barely left the courtroom with my shirt and shoes and one claim left. Opposing counsel left the courtroom with me. He didn’t gloat. I was shaking. He looked at me and said, "Don’t let that bother you; it happens to everyone." He didn’t have to say that, but it made my day. We litigated that one claim. My more experienced adversary always treated me with courtesy. The case finally settled. I then knew how to treat opposing counsel when you’re "up" and they’re not. Thank you, Bruce Pringle!

I started my own practice with my wife and partner, Doris, four years after graduating from law school. We did everything that came our way. I handled a real estate title case, but messed up a piece of it. It seemed irreparable. I made an appointment with a highly regarded property law legend in Colorado. I met with him and told my tragic story. He listened and consoled. Then, from his experience, he told me how to fix it—not simple, but a good solution that remedied the problem. I thanked him. Now I could sleep. I offered payment, but he refused it. I insisted. The respected real estate attorney then told me that someday an attorney would come to me with a problem and I’d know the answer. I couldn’t even imagine a time when an attorney would ask me for help, and I would know the answer. He told me to help someone else when that time came and pass on the kindness. I never forgot that and tried to live up to his mandate. I’m convinced we all need more of this. So, I especially thank Willis Carpenter for an early and valuable lesson. Willis, you’re an example for all of us!

A year later, I co-counseled my first race discrimination trial. I worked as co-counsel on a case with an attorney who was a close friend from law school. She shared her knowledge of litigation. Although she was already a close friend, I learned discrimination law from our working together. We disagreed often and butted heads occasionally, but stayed the course. We wound up co-counseling more than twenty cases together, including several class actions. Thank you, Katy Miller, because you taught me so much. You are an incredible woman!

Years later, I was working on a medical malpractice case when we suffered a horrible family tragedy. A month later, I had to fly to Seattle for the final expert deposition that had been delayed because of my personal loss. The opposing counsel knew the situation. We flew out on the same flight. He suggested we share a cab. He took me to lunch. Although he pulled no punches during the deposition, he seemed concerned about me the whole trip until we got back home. He totally took care of me. Another lesson learned on how to treat a fellow lawyer. Thank you, Ed Bronfin!

A Profession of Which We Can Be Proud

There are many other stories of lawyers extending a helping hand to me and I’m sure each of you can point to such moments in your own career. These examples happen every day. What they add up to is a profession made up of helping, civil, and kind people—colleagues in a profession of which we can all be proud. The best that others have to offer us raises the bar and challenges us to strive to conduct ourselves at a higher standard. I plan to thank lawyers more often when they treat me well or help me.

As I write this, the news on television includes the death of Gregory Peck. Every story mentions that he earned fame and the title of "playing the most heroic role in movie history" when he portrayed a lawyer—Atticus Finch—in the film To Kill a Mockingbird. Some time ago, when Mr. Peck was asked how he hoped he would be remembered, he said, "as a good man, not a superman—as someone who tried to do the right thing." That sounds like one of my lawyer heroes. I like to think that each one of us has a little Atticus Finch inside.

If you have a personal "good lawyer" story that you want to share, please e-mail it to me at

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