I celebrate my 25th anniversary today, silently. And humbly. Twenty-five years of membership in the one profession that is needed for an ordered society to thrive under the deliberate laws of its duly-elected citizens.
In 25 years I have learned much, taught much, laughed much, and had moments of tears. I’ve made mistakes of law and mistakes of judgment, each one, I hope, making me stronger and better as a person and as a lawyer.
I have gained deeper understandings and a richer appreciation of our adversarial process, where the opposing counsel is my colleague, not my enemy, where successes belong to the men and women who have entrusted to me their interests and their livelihoods, but where failure is personally felt.
Over 25 years I have advised governments in their deliberations of what is useful and what is good, and I have represented businesses as they have created jobs and expanded tax bases. I have represented men and women who, because of someone else’s negligence, have lost a member of their family, a part of their body, or their ability to earn a living. And I have, on a few occasions, had the privilege of standing between a citizen accused of a crime and a powerful government that clumsily holds the levers of the fragile machinery of justice. Over 25 years I have learned that justice is more of an ideal than a result, and that, in spite of our continuous efforts to improve our laws and legal systems they remain inherently unequal and imperfect because we, as humans, are imperfect.
As a profession, we are often maligned on Monday by the same person who needs us desperately on Tuesday, while the methodical and tedious and time-consuming efforts required to build and present our cases in courts of law are often portrayed in abbreviated simplicity and undeserved glory in movies and TV.
But our role in a civil society is never so keenly underappreciated or misunderstood as when, in celebration of Memorial Day or the 4th of July, citizens of admirable intention forward mass emails that credit the totality of our freedoms to victories and sacrifices on foreign battlefields, messages that ignore the ongoing battles in our own cities and neighborhoods over the centuries either to protect American citizens from society’s members who are sometimes fearful of others’ freedoms while guarding their own, or to protect citizens from a government that has taken active steps to take their freedoms away.
I’m proud that it was lawyers with briefcases, not soldiers with guns, who fought for Rosa Parks’ right to sit at the front of the bus when the duly adopted ordinances of Montgomery denied her that freedom. I’m proud that the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses to practice their religion according to their own determinations, and the right of young Iowa student John Tinker to protest a controversial war, and Myra Bradwell’s right, as a woman, to become an attorney in Illinois were all defended by members of my profession.
I’m proud that guarantees of due process and the rights to own property free from government confiscation are protected in the courts of our country every day and everywhere, often without fanfare and sometimes without compensation, by lawyers. For we prove to ourselves again and again that when it comes to the basic rights and freedoms guaranteed by one of the greatest documents ever written, we – not foreign governments –can be our own worst enemy.
On September 19, 1985, I stood in a courtroom before the Honorable Edwin S. Preston and took an oath to “be faithful and bear true allegiance” to our state and federal laws and constitutional powers and to “truly and honestly demean myself” as an attorney. And as I sit here today, reflecting on my first 25 years as a member of the bar of the great state of North Carolina, I hope my record reflects that I have lived up to my oath. And I hope that my next quarter century gives me every opportunity to do the same.
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