From Collaborative in Jersey…
I was gratified and honored to be presented with the Legal Professional of the Year Award by the Hunterdon County Bar Association on September 22, 2010. Here is the substance of my remarks upon accepting the award:
LEGAL PROFESSIONAL AWARD REMARKS
Hunterdon County Bar Association
September 22, 2010
After 23 years of practicing law, there is one observation I would like to press home, especially to you young attorneys. That is to practice without fear.
We have taken a solemn oath to defend not one, but two constitutions. So, much is expected of us by American society. For this reason, you should not be concerned whether taking on a particular client will upset certain people or perhaps negatively affect your legal career.
With that in mind, let me note a few legal professionals I look up to. One is John Adams, who, although a recognized up-and-coming leader in the Sons of Liberty movement and rising star in the Boston Bar, chose to represent the British soldiers (March, 1770) indicted for murder in the infamous Boston Massacre.
Adams practiced without fear.
In 1846, another attorney was involved in a highly charged murder trial in the small city of Auburn, New York. The accused, a 23 year old young man by the name of William Freeman entered the home of a wealthy farmer, John Van Nest, knifing to death Van Nest, his pregnant wife, another small child and the wife’s mother. He was apprehended within hours. He immediately confessed his guilt, was observed laughing uncontrollably and showing no remorse for the horrific crimes. He had just been released from prison.
In the hours prior to the arraignment, the members of the Auburn bar were threatened with violence if they undertook Freeman’s defense. During the arraignment, before a packed and emotional gallery, when the judge stated “’Will anyone defend this man?,’ one lawyer stepped forward and said “May it please the Court, I shall remain counsel for the prisoner until his death.”
This attorney had the most to lose of any in the Auburn bar. He was William Henry Seward, and he had just completed two terms as governor of NY, but still had national political ambitions. Almost everyone was angry with him for taking this case: his father-in-law, who was another judge in that county; and his political mentor, who believed he was throwing away his political career. The only person whom stood by him, and thought he was in the right, was his wife, Frances, who assured her sister that “he will do what is right. He will not close his eyes and know that a great wrong is perpetrated.”
Seward spent weeks investigating the murders (btw, Van Ness was a friend of Seward’s). During the investigation he discovered that Freeman had been wrongly convicted five years earlier, and was repeatedly beaten in prison leaving him deaf and deranged. This evidence was presented to the jury and supported by the testimony of five physicians, but the jury rejected the insanity defense and found Freeman guilty of the murders.
Seward’s stirring words in defense of Freeman were carried by newspapers throughout the country. He was later elected twice to the US Senate, ran for president and was a successful Secretary of State for two presidents. He played a key role in the abolition of slavery itself.
Seward practiced without fear.
To put Seward and Adam’s decisions in context today, imagine how our community would react to a member of this bar agreeing to represent a group of embattled Americans in their quest to build a house of worship in Lower Manhattan? Yet, this is the self-sacrifice that our society sometimes expects of attorneys.
Keep in mind that we are still held in esteem by an enlightened society. Despite some polls and put-downs by pundits, one of the most popular 20th C. literary characters remains an attorney: Atticus Finch. Author Harper Lee’s main character from “To Kill a Mocking Bird” is still the model of integrity for lawyers.
Fair or not, many clients expect us to be Atticus Finch: that we will aggressively argue their causes and pursue due process without fear of retribution to our livelihoods or person.
The rigorous exercise of our oath is a high calling and at times a burden and stressful. But, I can tell you from my experience that practicing without fear will give you greater satisfaction as a professional and I recommend it to all here. Not only does our community expect it of us, but the health of our Republic depends upon it as well.