Georgia Bar Journal, Vol. 4 No.1; ©State Bar of Georgia, 1998-2010. Used by permission, all rights reserved.
My father ran a general store in Leesburg during my childhood years. I spent many afternoons after school sweeping the wooden floor, exploring many fascinating tools in the hardware department and looking through a large collection of catalogues.
The highlight of my day was a visit from one of the many traveling salesmen who called upon my father. Most possessed a wonderful sense of humor and I enjoyed participating in the easygoing banter that accompanied their visits. As I grew older, those visitors would often call me “a chip off the ol’ block.” I would grin and exchange glances with my father, proud to accept such a designation. My father questioned the status quo, spoke plainly and believed that one should not compromise one’s principles no matter what the cost. Although he was never a lawyer, my father’s values offered a strong foundation upon which to build my professional life.
In the summer of 1976, Dawn and I packed everything we owned into a U-Haul truck and headed from Athens to Louisville, Georgia for my job as a summer clerk with Jim Abbot. I had no idea what to expect. I knew very few lawyers and had never worked with a lawyer before. Now I was heading to the middle of nowhere, not knowing what I would be doing and very little about the lawyer with whom I would be working. That summer was the beginning of my real education in the art of being a lawyer.
Jim Abbot was the perfect template for a young lawyer. He had a thriving practice representing a variety of people and institutions and had achieved a level of respect that would have inflated the ego of a lesser person. In one brief summer I participated in labor negotiations, worked on a large estate, learned to check a title and sat at counsel table as Mr. Abbot prosecuted cases in State Court. While these practical experiences were invaluable, my most delightful moments with Mr. Abbot came when we were walking to the courthouse or driving to Wrens, Stapleton or Augusta to attend to some business. I was eager to understand how he was always able to deal with difficult people or situations in such a calm, dignified manner. Mr. Abbot would patiently explain how the profession of law was a calling and that honor, civility and candor were the badges of a “real” lawyer. He had great admiration for those lawyers who exemplified professionalism and little patience for those who would embarrass our profession. I knew within a few days of working with Mr. Abbot that he was the kind of lawyer I would strive to emulate.
My first job after graduation from law school was with Edmund Landau of Albany. Mr. Landau had an excellent reputation as a defense lawyer based upon his easygoing manner and brilliant legal mind. Mr. Landau had little interest in money. He was a lawyer because he loved the law. He woefully undercharged for his work and was so loyal to his clients that they frequently took advantage of him. Mr. Landau practiced each day as if his reputation depended on it.
I found myself in his office many afternoons as the day drew to a close seeking his advice on the challenging assignments he had given me. Within a few months my afternoon visits expanded beyond the usual questions of a beginning lawyer to encompass all aspects of the practice of law. I learned that clients deserve absolute loyalty and prompt service. I also learned that professional satisfaction had little to do with income.
My father, Jim Abbot and Mr. Landau were my mentors – I just didn’t know it at the time. Without the benefit of any formal program, they taught by example. All of us have the same opportunity. It is easy to become so caught up in the daily grind of law practice that we forget what called us to this profession of service. Our words and our actions are being watched closely by the next generation of lawyers. What they become will be largely determined by the example we set.