The Colorado Lawyer
Vol. 34, No. 5 [Page 23]
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CBA President's Message to Members
by Steve C. Briggs
|Steve C. Briggs|
The term [professionalism] refers to a group calling in the spirit
of public service—no less a public service because it may
incidentally be a means of livelihood. Pursuit of the learned
art in the spirit of a public service is the primary service.1
On at least a couple of occasions, I’ve used these columns to offer what I hope has been taken as constructive criticism of the kind of lawyer conduct that undercuts our public image as professionals. However, constant criticism can cease being constructive, no matter how justified. Sometimes, a message is better received when it is more positive and personal.
Further, by this time some of you may wonder if I have conjured up an image of the professional lawyer that simply can’t exist in the reality of struggling to make a living. Can I put any real face on this image? I can, and I will.
Personal Perceptions of a Professional
The example I will use is a lawyer I first met when I was in private practice in Boulder. I had been cajoled into volunteering for the board of a local nonprofit agency. In short order, I fell under the charismatic spell of the board president. He was the consummate volunteer: affable; active; emotionally involved; enthusiastic; and a supportive, positive leader. He combined his business and legal acumen, his heartfelt compassion for the less fortunate, his desire to give a hand up (not a handout), and his lively mind to generate creative solutions for every problem. The volunteer work took enormous amounts of his time. Not once did I ever hear him complain.
It was a couple of years later that I learned we were on opposite sides of a complex, emotional legal dispute. I worried whether the case would impact our relationship as volunteers. I needn’t have. He was a formidable adversary while being invariably polite and honest. He was passionate for his client, but patient with me and my client. He had a way of disagreeing without being disagreeable.
Over the years, I watched this lawyer in awe. He spent seventeen years on the board of The Counseling Center (thirteen as President); worked hard on multiple Boulder Bar Association committees for repeated terms, serving as Chair of many of them; volunteered regularly for cases from Boulder County Legal Services; served many years on the board of the Boulder County Humane Society; and engaged as a member, and president, of the Penfield W. Tate II Inn of Court.
At the same time, this lawyer never sought more high-profile positions in the Boulder or Colorado Bar Associations or otherwise. He was happy to work quietly but tirelessly out of the limelight, taking action to serve his local community whenever he saw a need that wasn’t being filled.
Other Perceptions of a Professional
Others who have come in contact with this lawyer, both in legal and volunteer capacities, have formed views similar to mine.2 Here are just a few examples.
Mike Minor, who’s shared an office with him, says: "I don’t have enough words for the good things I could say about him. He’s really smart, very dedicated to his clients. I don’t think I’ve met a more ethical lawyer. He’s constantly thinking about the ethical and moral implications of what he’s doing, and he always gives appropriate advice." Mike first met him when they worked on Boulder County Bar Association committees together. "He’s a natural leader; people have such respect for him."
Boulder attorney Ann Mygatt first met this lawyer in an unusual way: "He represented my husband in our divorce. He did a hell of a job negotiating." Yet, his approach was such that they later became fast friends, and they have remained so for more than twenty years. "He’s one of the most jovial, avuncular people I know. He has this way about him that’s so inclusive, so even-tempered. He can get angry at injustice, but his personality is very calming and reassuring."
Ann says that while she was in the DA’s office, he would come by "with some unfortunate person and he would always really work hard to get the best deal he could get for his client. It was rare to find someone like that." She adds, "He helps people all the time. He always goes the extra mile. I know lawyers who have been troubled. Whose house do they think of going to? It’s his, and he welcomes them with open arms. He has a rapport with people that’s astonishing."
This is a lawyer who also knows the importance of finding time for family. He and his wife Kay married in 1973. She fell in love with his "sense of humor, and we shared common values about how we wanted to live our lives." Kay says that her husband is especially proud of their daughter Kim, who is now a student teacher at an alternative high school. "He’s still good at thinking things through with her, helping her not jump to conclusions." Kay adds, "My husband is happiest when he’s helping someone else succeed or when some situation works out positively for someone despite the odds."
Daughter Kim says the one thing she learned watching her dad as she grew up is that he always puts helping people before making money. When she was young and wondered why her family didn’t have some gadget that her friends’ families had, she always got the same message: Happiness is more important than money, and happiness comes from enjoying what you do every day.
A Way of Life as a Professional
Having spent a full career helping others, both in his practice and in his volunteer work, this lawyer had every right to slow down. So what did he do? Twelve years ago he took on a new adventure that still consumes him: the Boulder County AIDS Project ("BCAP").
He began as a volunteer lawyer and soon was the coordinator of the volunteer attorney team, a position he has held for the last twelve years. Oh yes, he also has served on the board for eight years, as chair of the Client Services Committee, as a member of the ethics panel, as secretary, and as president.
BCAP Executive Director Robin Bohanan says, "This guy just sort of walked in the door one day and fell in love with us and we fell in love with him. Since then, he’s grown a core of attorneys that now number 75 on our list of volunteers."
One problem they sometimes have had, especially in the past when the AIDS epidemic was so visible and scary, was discrimination and ignorance on the part of other agencies. "His approach was, ‘Let’s use this as an opportunity to educate. Let’s show them the right thing to do. Because people want to do the right thing.’"
Robin says that board members at BCAP are encouraged to "share their wealth, wisdom, or work, in terms of volunteer time. He did all three." That even included being part of the annual Holiday Cabaret, where members of the community perform skits. "He dressed up in drag and played Nancy Sinatra singing, ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.’ He was hilarious. It speaks to his spirit—‘I’m going to do whatever it takes.’ He is our best ambassador. He uses any single contact he has to educate about what’s going on with AIDS; then he signs them up. He has made a huge difference for our clients."
Robin sees in him a unique ability to look objectively to the core of an issue, but to surround that objectivity with compassion. She remembers a time when she was a case manager and got a call that one of their clients, someone with whom this lawyer had worked closely, had died. "He left his office and went with me to the man’s apartment, even before the coroner had arrived. It was an emotional time. He was clear-headed, but emotional himself. It was great having him there. That’s the level of his support."
Robin adds that recently, "we did a tribute to him at one of our staff meetings." As they went around the table, "what everyone said was extremely consistent: People said they had completely changed their view of attorneys by knowing him."
She concludes, "We love him to death for who he is and what he’s done for the agency. He puts faith into action. He walks the walk."3
These days I don’t get to Boulder much. But every month, like clockwork, I still receive my Boulder Bar Newsletter. There’s a special listing now for volunteer lawyers who have taken new cases from the Boulder County AIDS Project. Every month, like clockwork, I see his name there.
Our world is made up of givers and takers. Then there are some who give and give and give.
This lawyer is but one of the many faces of professionalism among our Colorado lawyers. I share his story so that perhaps some young lawyers worrying about their billable hours or being zealous advocates will pause, at least for a moment, and reflect.
Perhaps some of you would like to say thanks to him. It’s not necessary. He lives his life this way because it makes him happy.
Some of you may be wondering who this lawyer is. Well, if you insist, his name is Paul Bierbaum. To put a real face on professionalism, it’s his photo that is shown here. Just another unsung hero, selflessly serving his local community. No more and no less than professionalism personified.
1. Pound, The Lawyer from Antiquity to Modern Times: With Particular Reference to the Development of Bar Associations in the United States (St. Paul: West Pub., 1953) at 5.
2. Thanks to CBA/DBA Assistant Executive Director Diane Hartman for conducting the interviews referenced in this section. As always, I couldn’t do it without her!
3. Robin admits to being personally biased. Once, after she had written a piece for the volunteer newsletter, this lawyer went to her and said, "This work is so important. I want to do whatever I can to support you." Someone had suggested he send her flowers. I told him: "I don’t want flowers. Just introduce me to some guys." He did send flowers. He also introduced her to the man she later married.
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