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TCL > October 2000 Issue > What Do Lawyers Leave Behind?

October 2000       Vol. 29, No. 10       Page  47
CBA President's Message to Members

What Do Lawyers Leave Behind?
by Dale R. Harris

tcl-sept2001-daleAs we address the very serious challenges facing our profession,1 we must not forget the enormous contributions lawyers have made and still make in our society. I recently came across an outline of some thoughtful remarks on that subject delivered by then U.S. District Judge Jim Carrigan to the CBA convention in 1986. Judge Carrigan eloquently spoke about the importance of our profession, and I thought I would share a few of his thoughts and some of my own with you.2

In a famous poem,3 Carl Sandburg asked "when the lawyers are through, what is there left, Bob?" Sandburg suggested that lawyers—unlike bricklayers, masons, farmers, singers, and even dreamers—leave so little behind that not even a mouse could "nibble at it," and that even the "hearse horse snickers hauling a lawyer’s bones."

Judge Carrigan offered this rebuttal to the poet: "Lawyers do not build of steel or stone, but of sturdier stuff. We build monuments of ink on paper, of ideas jotted, or even less, words wafted on the wind."

The Greatest Monuments

Of course, Judge Carrigan was right, and sometimes we forget that lawyers—as much or more than people from any other single profession or calling—have been at the heart of virtually every great and enduring event in this country. Half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were lawyers, and many the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were lawyers. Born of ideas debated by lawyers, in treacherous, fragile and ambiguous times, these documents, eloquent in their simplicity, stand today as the greatest monuments ever built in this country. And they were brought to us mostly by lawyers.

Justice John Marshall said the Constitution was the supreme law of the land, a permanent not temporary declaration of fundamental principles, and that courts, not the legislature or the executive but the courts, were the final interpreters of the Constitution. And the courts make their decisions after listening to the ideas and arguments of lawyers.

The Constitution was saved by another lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, and countless other lawyers through the ages have kept it strong and vibrant against all challenges.

But it isn’t just these giants of history that should make us proud to be lawyers. Everywhere around us are lawyers speaking out for unpopular causes and defending people who are disliked, scorned, and already judged guilty in the court of public opinion. Lawyers help governments function and businesses operate. Lawyers take on the hard cases and the difficult transactions. Some speak for the poor; others for paying clients with sophisticated and complicated legal problems. They’re all doing important and necessary work.

Even those who are so quick to criticize or tell a lawyer joke turn to a lawyer when they’re in trouble—when crunch time comes. Judge Carrigan put it this way: "When life gets down to the raw essentials, when people need real help over real problems, they call their lawyer."

Let’s Stand Up For Our Profession

The point of all this is that we should be proud of our profession and stand up for it when the criticism comes. Despite all our problems and all the changes being wrought by technology in a fast-paced society, we remain the vital links between the public and the rule of law.

There’s so much that we take for granted that those around us don’t understand.Your children know you’re a lawyer, but do they really understand why you chose the law, why you think it’s so important, what are the foundations of the law? Do they understand basic principles like the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, being able to confront one’s accusers, and the right to a jury trial? Do they know why lawyers are needed to help with complex business transactions? Does your spouse understand? Your parents? Your neighbors?

We should be ready and willing to speak up, to explain what we do and why we are asked to do it. We don’t have to lecture and bore people with long harangues, but if someone in front of you in the grocery store line is discussing the latest high-profile case with the clerk and says, "I don’t know how lawyers can defend those guilty people," why not offer a simple, polite explanation and give them something to think about. When a neighbor is outraged over a judge’s "light" sentence, you could tell her a little about how the system works.

Obviously, there are things we can’t defend and don’t know about. And we cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend we don’t have serious failings—and even outright abuse—to address.4 But there are plenty of opportunities to say we believe in our legal system, that we’re proud to be lawyers, that even though some things aren’t perfect, our profession is constantly trying to improve itself.

Perhaps if we showed more pride in our profession, in the accomplishments and traditions, others would be less quick to criticize. There’s also a bigger payoff. I believe if we don’t explain the legal system and how it works, we could lose it. Bit by bit, initiative by initiative, more and more of the Constitution can be chipped away, often by well-meaning people who don’t see the big picture of our democracy.

We should all strive to live our professional lives so that the next time a poet asks, "When the lawyers are through what is there left, Bob?," we can give them another of Judge Carrigan’s answers: A lawyer leaves "a good name, a jewel beyond price. A lawyer builds a fairer, freer, more open society. A lawyer builds truth and justice."


1. See Harris, "Opening Statement," 29 The Colorado Lawyer 23 (Aug. 2000); Harris, "Do Lawyers Lie?" 29 The Colorado Lawyer 19 (Sept. 2000).

2. I wish to thank CBA/DBA Director of Communications Diane Hartman for her contributions to this article.

3. Readers can find the complete poem in Sandburg, "The Lawyers Know Too Much," The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg, rev. and expanded ed. (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Pubs., 1969, 1970).

4. See, e.g., Harris, "Do Lawyers Lie?" 29 The Colorado Lawyer 19 (Sept. 2000).

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