The former US Supreme Court Justice on appreciating history & taking time to sharpen the saw
What was your route into the profession?
I thought about becoming a lawyer when I was in high school. It was only a dream at the time. My parents were of modest means and neither had finished high school. The prospects of going to college were bleak, but they encouraged my brother and I to study in hopes of obtaining a scholarship. We were both fortunate in receiving college scholarships to one of the best colleges. I knew there was still no money for law school but continued to make that my goal. Once again, I was awarded a scholarship and was able to attend an Ivy League law school, from which I graduated with honours. While many of my classmates took jobs on Wall Street, I returned home to practise law with a small firm and help the people in the community where I was raised. I became a partner in that small firm and then joined a large prestigious Delaware law firm as a lateral partner. In 1986, when I was 39 years old, there was vacancy on the Delaware Supreme Court. I had never aspired to being a judge or thought about a judicial career. I enjoyed being a lawyer. Despite my relatively young age, I was encouraged by judges and other lawyers to consider applying for the position. I was appointed to the Delaware Supreme Court in 1986 for my first twelve-year term and became the youngest person to serve on that court. I was reappointed once and then reappointed again to an unprecedented third twelve-year term. I retired in 2017 as the longest serving Delaware Supreme Court Justice.
What has been your biggest career challenge so far?
My biggest challenge has been with regulating the practice of law. The Delaware Supreme Court controls both the admission of attorneys to practice law and, thereafter, the lawyer disciplinary system. We recognise that each of those aspects of the process have implications for not only the attorney but for public trust and confidence. Prior to admission, we require a six-month clerkship with a senior attorney. We also conduct a careful character and fitness interview. Nevertheless, some attorneys (thankfully only a few) encounter disciplinary problems. Our focus was always on protecting the public and providing an appropriate response to the misconduct. We were also concerned with preventing problems of any nature. Toward that end we mandated continuing legal education, established professional guidance and lawyer assistance programs, authorised the random audits of book and records, and created a model fund for client protection. The incidents of misconduct by Delaware lawyers is very good by national standards but our constant goal was no incidents.
Which person within the legal profession inspires you the most?
I am most inspired by retired United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. In addition to being very intelligent, she is determined, hard-working and humble. In her book, Lazy B, she describes how she developed those traits growing up on a ranch in Arizona. One of the things she learned was that there are ‘no excuses, only results’. The respect she showed to the ranch hands stayed with her always. She treated everyone with dignity and respect. I spoke at a dinner in her honour in Phoenix where the audience was comprised of her friends and former staff members.They were unanimous in confirming her respect for everyone. The same was true when I visited Justice O’Connor at the United States Supreme Court, where she greeted the elevator operators and cafeteria staff by name. Despite her brilliant academic success at Stanford Law School, she could not get a job and opened her own store front law office. Her hard work and determination led to a distinguished career that broke the glass ceiling for women in the legal profession. She was respected by her judicial colleagues, even when they did not always agree, and frequently cast the deciding vote in many 5-4 decisions.
If you were not a lawyer, what you would choose as an alternative career?
I would choose to be a history teacher and coach football in the fall and baseball in the spring. My teachers and coaches had a great positive impact on my life. I would like to reciprocate. History provides a context for appreciation and understanding that has practical applications in our daily lives. It enables us to be better citizens and contributors to the good of modern society. Sports are an opportunity to develop teamwork, confidence and to learn how to accept defeat with dignity, perseverance in the face of adversity and a determination to try again.
Who is your favourite fictional lawyer?
My favourite fictional lawyer is Perry Mason. His stories focused on the concept of innocent until proven guilty. He worked hard at trying to find the truth. He was an idealist. I also like Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.
What change would you make to the legal profession?
The legal profession is on a 24/7 schedule. I would change the focus toward a more balanced work/life style. Individuals benefit from the support of their family and friends. In Covey’s book about The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, one chapter is called ‘Take Time To Sharpen The Saw’. There is an example about a person who sawed wood all day until they were exhausted and the saw was dull. A passer-by suggested taking a break and sharpening the saw. The reply was that there was no time for a break or to sharpen the saw because there was a lot more wood to cut. Obviously, more work gets done by a rested person with a sharp saw. This is not only a good lesson for lawyers.
How do you relax?
I relax by taking walks with my wife, especially along the ocean beach near our home. We met in high school. She is my best friend and a wonderful person. It is more than relaxing; it is a joy to be with her.
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December 7, 2021