A few weeks ago I traveled to Mobile to address the lawyers in Alabama at their state bar’s Annual Convention. It was the first time I’d ever been asked to deliver an opening keynote at an annual bar meeting. And it was an honor to receive their invitation. At the time I didn’t know much about the Alabama bar or their wellness work. But I quickly discovered they had much more to offer me than I could ever hope to offer them.
What I found when I arrived in Mobile wasn’t a small group of lawyers simply seeking to create a committee to support attorney well-being. What I discovered was an entire bar whose desire to support attorney wellness was the overflow of something much deeper—their collective wish to love the world around them. That desire, and that spirit, formed the very architecture of the entire Convention—from the magnets handed out at registration, to the Convention’s signature event—the “Love Your Neighbor” Luncheon.
You will have to admit, “Love your neighbor” is a rather unconventional theme for a bar meeting. However, in Mobile I seemed to have stumbled upon an entire state bar willing to frame their Annual Convention around celebrating the ways legal professionals try to incarnate the admonition of “loving your neighbor” in the carrying out of their work as lawyers and judges.
The Honorable Ashby Pate spoke at the Love Your Neighbor Luncheon. And the title of his talk was “Be the Light.” Ashby practices with a well respected firm in Birmingham. But before that he was a former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Palau (an island country in the Western Pacific). Through his work on that court, Ashby played a significant role in ending human rights violations in Palau’s prison system. And that is only one of Ashby’s many accomplishments. Look him up on Google. You will be impressed.
But it’s not Ashby’s resume as much as his story that’s so inspiring. Ashby didn’t start out planning to be a lawyer. He actually wanted to be a rock musician. However, after a concert one night he was pulled out of his car by local police and arrested on drug charges. A few days later he found himself standing in front of a judge, not sure what direction his life was about to take. The judge told Ashby he was going to give him a chance to turn his life around. Ashby took him up on it and never looked back.
The law’s highest calling, Ashby reminded us, is not to disconnect but to reconcile. In the zero sum game of litigation, however, how quickly we seem to forget that. Yet, during these times when our country is so deeply divided on so many different issues, don’t we need a profession who can champion the calling of reconciliation? What would happen if more of us started to think about our work in that way?
Seated next to me in the packed ballroom was an African American gentlemen in his mid 80s. Even though we had been chatting with each other during lunch, we never got around to introducing ourselves. When we got up to leave, I noticed his attendee badge indicated his name was Fred Gray. I am embarrassed to say I didn’t know who Fred Gray was at the time. But everyone else in that room did.
Mr. Gray was one of the first African American lawyers in Alabama. He represented both Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin. He worked closely with Martin Luther King. He was the lawyer who appeared in court to argue that the Selma to Montgomery March should be allowed to proceed. (He was played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the movie Selma). He was also the lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit regarding the highly controversial Tuskegee Syphilis Study. He is, by any definition, a hero of the legal profession. And it seemed no small coincidence that we had shared a table for that luncheon.
Being with our brothers and sisters in Alabama, I was reminded that we only have two choices when are asked to advocate on behalf of others, or to judge those appearing in our courtrooms. We can do our work from a place of love. Or we can do our work from a place of fear. When do the later, we sow the seeds of division and disconnection. When we do the former, we change the world.