This Memorial Day marked my last day as a federal judge.
It has been the highest privilege of my life to serve for 25 years as a judge on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The federal and state judges with whom I have worked bring to their positions the highest level of intellect, integrity, and committed sense of purpose. They are, in short, dedicated patriots who fight to preserve the rule of law for this nation and who model an independent judiciary respected throughout the world.
I leave my chambers for academic life as dean of the School of Law at Pepperdine University. In my career as a judge, I enjoyed an ideal “bench” from which to observe lawyers and the legal profession. That perspective, as well as my previous experience in academia, inspired and impelled me to examine the future role of legal education. How should lawyers be trained so that they are fully equipped to serve the profession, the nation, and the larger society in the years ahead?
I firmly believe, both as a matter of history and in a personal sense, that we lawyers are called to be working models of the rule of law as it plays out on the highways and byways of everyday life. We are not just adversaries in contentious matters. We cannot simply be advocates on behalf of the causes that pay. We do not do justice if we separate our work as lawyers from our human values and important ethical responsibilities.
As I recall the many “judge-patriots” I have known as colleagues, I ask myself whether all lawyers, no matter where they work, should be trained in part to be “lawyer-patriots.” There are extraordinary lawyers around the globe who shine as patriots for the rule of law in humble, even hostile, everyday places. However, my anecdotal observation is that we lawyers need to reclaim our sense of a noble professional calling.
It was, after all, predominantly lawyers who, during the revolutionary and constitutional periods, clung tenaciously to the startlingly idealistic notion that the people themselves are sovereign. Those lawyer-patriots used their advocacy skills—both written and oral—to carve out a new nation built on that ideal. As our fledgling democracy grew and faced difficult questions of how to remain united, another lawyer took the stage, using his oratorical skills to inspire and safeguard the country. Later, in a famous case involving an elementary school in my native Kansas, lawyers helped change the course of American public education. None of these lawyers’ compensation came close to the value of their work in furthering equal justice and the rule of law.
The point is clear: Being a lawyer is much, much more than having a job. What is this professional calling that I espouse? Who, exactly, is a lawyer-patriot? There are many manifestations of these ideals. First and foremost, it is a calling and a commitment to return to all forms of public service. Much of the history of this nation is marked by the work of lawyers in elective office, on volunteer committees, and in leadership positions in business and industry. Lawyers are trained to be problem solvers and could bring those essential skills to the school boards, city commissions, nonprofit groups, and legislative halls of the nation. Every issue under consideration at all levels of government cries out for civil debate, thoughtful and informed advocacy, and a real commitment to the common good.
Let me explain: This nation suffers mightily from a “my-way-or-the-highway” approach to policy issues. We often fail to comprehend the complexity of problems and the ramifications of any single “solution.” We rely on sound bytes rather than develop a comprehensive knowledge of the subject at hand. Lawyers with strong problem-solving and dispute-resolution skills could elevate considerably the quality and tenor of public discourse.
Thus, if we lawyers are to respond to this calling, we must model civil discourse in a cacophonous culture—using every skill we have learned as lawyers—to focus the local, state, and national attention on relevant facts, complex considerations, and respectful debate. It is what lawyers should be doing—both in their day jobs and in their communities, families, and public lives. What a difference the legal profession could make if we joined together in this noble endeavor! I am convinced that a reenergizing of the model of the lawyer-patriot would inspire the public to believe more in the fairness of the courts, government, and decision-making everywhere.
Because I see the ideal lawyer as a patriot, and because we live in a time when patriots are so sorely needed, I am returning to legal education. There, I will join those who must find answers to the difficult questions of who the lawyers of the future should be, what skills they must master, and how we might pave the road to achieve our shared purpose.
I am excited by the prospect of creating lawyer-patriots who will bring the full measure of their talents, intellects, ethical construct, and values to the legal profession and to the public arena. Indeed, we should all recommit ourselves to the model of the patriot, whatever form that might take. You might call me naive. You might call me a hopeless optimist or an insufferable idealist. But please call me a lawyer-patriot.
Originally published in the Daily Journal on May 17.