—I was talking with a campus visitor Saturday morning and mentioned that I was on my way to photograph the 2009 Wabash College Lawyer’s Reunion, and that the turnout had been even better than we’d expected.
“How do you get so many lawyers to come back to college?” the visitor asked. It sounded like a set-up for a joke, but I resisted the temptation find the gag line (and attorney David Kendall ’66 had used up all the lawyer jokes during his keynote address at the previous night’s dinner).
Instead, I mentioned the hard work and years it had taken for those organizing it to put this together; I told him about the ICLEF sessions, and the panel the day before featuring Kendall, Greg Castanias ’87, Seamus Boyce, and Indiana Solicitor General Tom Fisher ’91, all who had argued or contributed to arguments before the Supreme Court.
The visitor was surprised that such folks came from this “small” campus, and was impressed when I told him I was on my way to photograph a similarly accomplished group about to spend almost two hours with our students.
See a photo album from the session here
He would have been even more impressed had he attended that session. The enthusiasm for the work, for encouraging the next generation of their profession, was like few exchanges I’ve seen between alumni and students here. And I’ve seen some excellent ones.
In fact, such excellence is the norm.
What set this one apart for me though—beside the fact that the questions and informal conversation kept going long after the event was over, and beside Professor Scott Himsel’s thoughtful and well-paced moderating of the panel—was the passion. To a man, these guys love their work (though not always the job, one alum admitted.) And you could see that as they reached out to this next generation.
I’ll put this all together in a more organized, reader-friendly form for the "Back on Campus" section in the next Wabash Magazine. For now, let me share a few of the quotes I scribbled down as these attorneys—and students were talking:
Bob Wright ’87 of Dean-Webster, Wright, & Kite LLP in Indianapolis, shared a hilarious “Perry Mason “ moment, then offered this advice to students fresh out of law school and looking for their first job: "It’s like meeting a bear in the woods—you don’t have to beat the bear, just the guy next to you.
"If you graduate from law school and pass the bar, you’re a lawyer. And people need lawyers. You can help a lot of people early on; the money will eventually come in if you do the work."
Northern Kentucky University Chase College of Law Professor Roger Billings ’59 offered this on the same topic to the "90% of law students who aren’t in the top 10% of their classes": "Sometimes you have to find a way in the back door. What do you do? Look at niches. Add a CPA to your law degree, or internationalize—learn a second language, particularly chinese or spanish.
"Find a niche and make yourself an expert in one of those."
Scott Himsel ’85, who teaches constitutional law at the College and is a partner at Baker & Daniels in Indianapolis, added, "the fun is learning the odd niche. These specialities are so much fun.
"The law is about teaching and learning—being the best student you can be, then figuring out how to teach it—to your client, to the court, and to the jury."
Nelson Alexander of Frost Brown Todd LLC warned that "a lack of mentoring is undermining the education of young laywers—and that’s got to change.”
Rick Cavanaugh ’76 described his work as associate counsel for Duke Energy, most recently the rapid-development of wind energy farms.
And Steve Bowen ’68, partner at Latham & Watkins in Chicago and chairman of the College’s Board of Trustees, added this advice to current students:
"If you do nothing else, learn to write. The inability to do so is the most frequent shortcoming I see in young lawyers. Enjoy your liberal arts education to the fullest. You’ll find that the law is just another liberal art. But learn to write.
"Pick the best law school you can get into, but also realize that in 20 years, all that doesn’t matter. A lot of legal education is self-education, you have to do the work—great lawyers come from everywhere.
"Clients hire individuals, not firms; but the practice of law is teamwork. Our firm wouldn’t be worth a damn without the team.
"You need to learn a lot of things about the law to do the one thing you’re going to specialize in. You get really good at something, then 20 years down the road your client will ask your opinion about something outside that speciality .’I don’t specialize in that’ is not the right answer in that situation! Over time, you develop a relationship, become more involved in your client’s problems and legal needs, and they’ll come to you with those. That’s when you know you’re practicing law.”
Most of the students stayed long after the “formal” discussion was over, their chance to ask their own personal questions. One student I talked with said his conversation with Roger Billings had both clarified the direction he wished to pursue and reaffirmed his desire to practice the law. Others were still in conversation as I left for Homecoming Chapel.
I’ve known several of these alumni for a while, but I’ve never had the opportunity to watch them practice their trade, much less reach out to and teach our students. If practicing law is, as Scott Himsel says, "about teaching and learning," these guys are among the best.