Lessons from an old country lawyer

Remember values and success aren’t always found together, lawyer warns

Griz statue at the University of Montana (University of Montana).

The following was an address given to the Alexander Blewett III School of Law graduates at the University of Montana on May 8, 2021 by Clifford Edwards.

You COVID contagion graduates are truly “history makers.”  In the 110-year history of this storied law school – that began right over there in that elegant old building – you have emerged, intact and triumphant from the dark cloud of pandemic that 15 months ago ensnared all of us, snapping shut like a bear trap, capturing the lives we knew.

May it now be that you are the first and the last contagion graduating law classes here on the shores of the Clarks Fork River for at least the next 110 years.

Because of your unique history, I researched your backgrounds some … don’t worry, I stashed all of the embarrassing and compromising intelligence (and there was plenty) in the library book stacks, somewhere in the neighborhood of “American Jurisprudence and Corpus Juris Secundum.”  That ensures that evidence will never be found! But my usable research revealed you are a keenly interesting and eclectic collection of talent.

You hail from some 20 divergent states that range from A to W, Alabama to Washington; you span both coasts of North America, from Alaska to Florida.  Your avowed interests outside the law paint a colorful canvas for your class portrait.  You fight fires, fly airplanes, sail boats, ranch, teach yoga; are probation officers, serve as AmeriCorps volunteers and English teachers in Brazil … then, no surprise, it appears “home brewing enthusiasts” abound in your midst.

Make no mistake:  This special and long awaited day clearly and absolutely belongs to you; you classes of 2020 and 2021 graduating from Blewett Law School at the University of Montana.

Cliff Edwards (Photo courtesy of Edwards Law Firm).

The COVID invasion crashed not only your established routine as law students, but indeed the very way your legal education was structured.  Who knew at the end of 2020 that “Zoom” could be a tort as well as a verb?  Who knew it was perfectly proper to attend law school classes in just your underwear?

Dean Kirgis pointed out to me that most of you, as well as your professors, haven’t laid eyes on one another, face-to-face until today during the past 15 months other than looking at each other’s faces crunched into one inch square boxes on a computer screen.

It is a noteworthy accomplishment that you law students and your faculty transitioned a traditional law school experience into a ZoomZoom education, complete with cameras and microphones, punctuated with outbursts from both faculty and classmates from time to time … “you’re on mute!”  It’s also been rumored that some of the faculty, unnamed of course, turned out to be much more knowledgeable about “The Rule In Shelley’s Case” and the nuances of the “Last Clear Chance Doctrine” than they were about the technology of “screen share” or the exercise of sorting people to their proper “chatrooms.” But all of you, students, and faculty, sucked it up, pulled together successfully transforming your educational experience into the virtual, while reportedly not a one of you ever morphed into a kitty cat on your computer screen like the infamous Texas County Attorney ineptly did, forcing him to plead to the Court:  “I’m live here, Your Honor … I am not a cat!”

You can all claim victory over COVID’s continuum of frustration.  In doing that, really, you demonstrated the essence of what victory is – victory is overcoming adversity that always rears up and tries to defeat your cause – but you all whipped that COVID adversity, and those of us gathered here to support you as you receive your juris doctorate degree here on this huge, alluring oval in front of this iconic Main Hall (well, when it’s sunny and warm it’s alluring!), salute you for now being able to assert:  Mission Accomplished!

Along with rendering that salute to you, I believe all of us are obliged to honor a group other than you here today.  While many of the membership of this group are unknown to the rest of us, and some may no longer be with us, each deserves special mention, in my view.

Fifty-four years ago President Lyndon Baines Johnson rang the history bell when he appointed the first person of color to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States.  That history-making Justice, the legendary Thurgood Marshall, accepted that appointment with striking humility, “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.  We got here because somebody [else] … bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”

Well, none of You got here today solely on your own, either.  Along your trail to today’s ceremony, someone, somewhere on that journey, saw something worthy in each one of you that caused them to make the effort to bend down … and pull you up … getting you to this finish line today.  Don’t you agree that we owe each of those essential contributors to your day of degree, a silent moment of gratitude?

OK, now you’re lawyers: So what?

The law isn’t just a job.  In fact, practicing law is a calling that is a privilege.  We lawyers are guardians of a client’s sacred secrets; secrets often revealed to us at a time when our clients are mired in the lowest and most desperate situations of their lives.  They entrust those secrets to us.  The trust that we can do something to help them.  So, we lawyers, as the client’s last hope, must carefully assemble facts, marshal the law to those facts, and then vigorously advocate for our client’s escape from their situation, all within the guardrails of ethics, honesty, and the rules of procedure and evidence.

Being a lawyer also carries obligations.  Among them, I believe we lawyers must use our privilege to promote and fight against societal injustice, as well as for our individual clients’ causes.  Societal injustice, be it unequal or no access to justice, discrimination, or predatory laws, deserve your attention and effort from time to time, regardless of whether you get paid for that particular work because the privilege of practicing law carries corresponding responsibilities.  The non-monetary rewards that you will gain from such efforts can be, indeed, most enriching.

Practicing law presents opportunities for you to promote the rights of the downtrodden against the powerful when they trample the down and out.  Conversely, the law presents opportunities to represent the more powerful, against the pseudo downtrodden, when they attempt to cheat, deceive, or swindle the more powerful entity.  After all, justice is due to all, regardless of status, low or high.

The law can be frustrating; the law can be brutally wrong.  But it does invite innovation that can change the law with creativity and old-fashioned hard work.  Just because “the law has always been settled that way” doesn’t mean the law shouldn’t, and can’t be changed, making right what was settled wrong in the first place.  That process is the heart of vigorous advocacy.  The uphill battle to change the law, when successful, is perhaps the most invigorating exercise of advocacy I’ve had the privilege of being part of.

The law is a also a tool; a tool that can fix unfairness when fairness has been unjustly denied, especially to various groups in society who are mired in poverty, discriminated against on the basis of skin color, ethnic origins, and a long litany of other excuses to discriminate against our fellow human beings.  We have a duty to use the law, as a fairness tool, during our careers.

As you all breeze through the upcoming bar exam, you will then soon be called to the bar; called to swear an oath to “support, protect, and defend” the Constitutions of both the United States of America and our state, Montana.  Be sure you know and respect the contents of both of those Constitutions because they hold the keys to the rule of law; the rule of law which is the foundation of any civil society; the foundation of any functioning democracy.

It is clear that one of the core functions of any organized practicing bar association is in the words of the mission statement of my cherished International Academy of Trial Lawyers.  Our small group has members who have all become friends, from the United States, Canada, Ireland, Israel, Switzerland, South Africa, and New Zealand, to name a few of the 40 other countries represented in the Academy.

That Mission Statement sets out this directive to all of us:  ” Protect, Preserve, and Expand the Rule of Law in our own states, countries and around the world.”

Integral to the proper function and the continuing existence of the rule of law is an independent judiciary.

It has been well said that the rule of law is the fabric of a democracy; it has equally been well said that an independent judiciary is the loom that weaves that fabric into the tapestry of an actual, functioning, continuing democracy.

Both the United States and Montana Constitutions provide three separate, equal, and independent branches of Government structured to provide a dynamic set of checks and balances under and for maintenance of the rule of law.

Founder James Madison wrote in his Federalist 51 Paper in February 1788 a warning that consolidating the power of any one branch into either or both of the other two branches’ power becomes “justly the definition of Tyranny.”

You have learned in your law school years, whether in person in your classrooms, or by the Zoom classrooms of the COVID, that only one of those three branches has the actual power to review and decide whether acts of the other two, the Legislature and the Executive branches, meet Constitutional standards.  Marbury v. Madison settled that question way back in 1803.  And yes, the Madison who was the defendant, authored Federalist 51.  Madison prevailed over Marbury as the Supreme Court of the United States declared: “The Court is the last word on whether any laws or orders of the Legislature or the Executive are Constitutional or not.”

That 1803 holding of Marbury has also long been adopted as the law in Montana.  In fact, just three weeks ago, Marbury was specifically, unanimous by the Montana Supreme Court, reinforced as the law in Montana in Brown et al. v. Gianforte: “It is the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is … an act of the Legislature, repugnant to the Constitution, is void … [and] … it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is,” citing Marbury v. Madison.

We are all painfully aware that currently tension exists between the separate and independent branches of both our National and Montana government.  It is critical as Montana lawyers, sworn officers of our Courts, that we all be true to the Oath we take:  “To support protect and defend the Constitution of Montana.”

Allow me leave you COVID CONTAGION Warriors with a little plain talk that just might convey a few bits of advice that perhaps might be useful to you from time to time.  This plain talk is based on this beat-up old country lawyer’s 47 years of courtroom battles throughout Montana and many other states.

The practice of law is flat demanding.  It comes with plenty of stress and plenty of pressure.  Sometimes lawyers can get so tied in knots with that stress and pressure that the mournful lyrics of Merle Haggard’s song seems written just for them:”Are the good times really over for good?  Are we rollin’ downhill like a snowball headed for hell?”

Well, hell no you aren’t!  Step back and get ahold of yourself if you feel like that.  Stop!  Reflect!  Don’t let the law control you, you need to control your law practice.  Be assured you are leaving my friend Zander Blewett’s Law School here just like I left it in 1974 when it was the University of Montana Law School … well-armed; well-armed in that I was, and you have been incredibly well-trained and prepared to effectively compete, head to head with any lawyer, trained in any law school, anywhere.

Consciously balance your obligations to the law practice with your obligations as a person: Be alive to life itself; stay alive by being active and be a part of the life of your spouse, significant other, children, family, friends, and community.  Read books that aren’t law books, take time to enjoy art and music and the wonders of Mother Nature with the limitless adventures her bounty grants us here in Montana and really all over the world.

Never allow yourself to get chained to a desk and a timesheet or a law position you hate and that you dread getting out of bed to report to every morning. If you find yourself mired in such, depressed and sad and maybe self-medicating too much, then immediately consult the clear teachings of the noble legal philosopher, Kenny Rogers: “Know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em … know when to walk away; know when to run.”

I personally practiced that philosophy as I went through four law firms in my first six years of practice.  That landed me, then, just where I’ve wanted and needed to be during these last 41 years!

Two final things: First, always remember what your mamas taught you:

“Be truthful, be respectful, be kind and helpful to others, and actually listen to what other people have to say.”

Secondly, keep in mind a great truth I was gifted from a weathered, crippled old cowboy many years ago while I was growing up in the Great Judith Basin of Central Montana: “Values and Success, son, ain’t always found in the same corral.”

So stay true to your values.  You’ll find true success follows values.  Congratulations! I wish every success to each and every one of you throughout what are bound to be amazing legal careers for you all.

Clifford Edwards is the president of the International Trial Lawyers Association; a longtime Montana attorney, who currently has several cases pending before the state’s Supreme Court.