Aaron V. Burrell: Rising to your Calling

Attorney Aaron Burrell of the Dickinson Wright law firm presented the keynote during WMU-Cooley Law School’s “Integrity in Our Communities” speaker series. Following his March 15 presentation, the law school honored him with the Integrity Award. The award is presented to legal professionals who demonstrate the highest integrity in their profession. LISTEN to or read below his talk entitled “Rising to your Calling.”

It was at Cooley that I first learned that the practice of law is more than just a job or a career.  When I decided to go to law school, I was uncertain of what kind of lawyer I wanted to be, the responsibilities of the lawyer, or what being a lawyer actually entailed.  I knew only a few things: that I wanted to seek an excellent legal education, that I wanted to provide for a future family, and that I wanted to make my family and my community proud.

When I arrived at Cooley 10 years ago, it became clear that what I was signing up for was not the chance for a good job, although that was part of it.  I realized almost immediately that becoming a lawyer is an all-encompassing transformation – the pursuit of a vocation that will intertwine itself into all aspects and areas of life.  It became quickly evident to me that the practice of law, in my estimation, is most appropriately considered a Calling – defined as a strong urge toward a particular way of life – as opposed to a career. It is almost as if becoming new person, one less interested in personal pursuits and more concerned with advancing the interests of others.

So the moment we are sworn in we assume the weight and responsibility exhaustively outlined in the lawyer’s oath; we begin a new journey, wherein our calling manifests itself in every aspect of our lives, including as a calling towards (1) the rule of law, (2) our clients, (3) our profession, and finally towards our community.

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So our first calling as lawyers is to the rule of law – which is why, not surprisingly, the first sentence of our oath mandates that we support the Constitution of the United States and the State of Michigan, and that we maintain respect to the courts of justice and judicial officers.

Our devotion to the rule of law must, therefore, take preeminent placement over and above every personal or individual interest.  I see our role as gatekeepers – ensuring both that the laws themselves are just – drafted to benefit the community upon which they govern and don’t arbitrarily identify a few selected beneficiaries; and that we also ensure that those laws are equally enforced, that no favorites are selected, and that every individual receives an equal chance in our courts.  Henry Ward Beecher said that a “law is valuable not because it is law, but because there is right in it.”  It is the lawyer’s job to ensure that every law ultimately has that “right in it.”

In everyday practice, this devotion manifests itself in a commitment to diligent research, ensuring fair and accurate interpretation of statutory and common law, and to ensuring that the parties and tribunal are appropriately apprised of the law.  In addition, I work to maintain candor with the Court – ensuring that I report honestly to the Court in all instances.

One of the most terrifying situations of my young career came at a moment when a client had failed to disclose all of the facts of a particular issue – and I in turn failed to report the full story to the Court.  If you were to describe the speed at which I worked to correct this situation as “lightning speed,” that would be an understatement.  Ultimately, the Court thoroughly appreciated my efforts to remedy the situation, and my client and I were able to achieve a good result through open and candid communication.

The rule of law is, quite honestly, paramount.  Jonathan Sacks declared that “true freedom requires the rule of law and justice, and a judicial system in which the rights of some are not secured by the denial of rights to others.” And Justice Sonia Sotomayor echoed that sentiment, observing that the rule of law is the “foundation for all of our basic rights.”

We as lawyers must constantly remind ourselves that we must rise first to our calling to protect the rule of law with every occasion, to build upon its footing with every statement of candor to the tribunal, to secure its foundations with every fair and impartial ruling, and to solidify its underpinnings by ensuring that all citizens who enter our courts experience genuine equality under the law.

Our second calling is our calling to our clients.  Since I began practicing, I have made it my goal to continually and routinely ensure that the interests of my clients enjoyed a paramount priority in my life.  Many lawyers I know are often exasperated by client demands and feel that meeting those demands can often become a hindrance – an inconvenience on personal obligations.  Although I have sometimes had to rearrange things in my personal life – I constantly remind myself that I signed up for this!  That becoming a lawyer wasn’t accepting a 9-5 position – that if I were to truly embrace the calling, I would ensure that I provided clients with excellent client service, and that I worked diligently to ensure that their needs were met.

One of the most renowned lawyers in our nation’s history, Abraham Lincoln, observed in his Notes for a Law Lecture, that the “leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence.  Leave nothing for tomorrow that which can be done today.”  I try to live each day under that mantra.

The lawyer must be responsive to client needs, attentive to client concerns, and must ensure that in everything he or she does, the lawyer is acting in the client’s best interest.

In my practice, I have seen the unfortunate warring that occurs between the lawyer’s personal concerns and the lawyer’s concerns for their clients – their individual interests, competing with the interests of the client.

Indeed, when I first received my business cards at Dickinson Wright, I did not have a full appreciation for what the term “attorney and counselor” meant on the card.  The “attorney” part I understood.  “Counselor” was then unknown to me.  But as time progressed, I began to see how important we are as “counselors” to clients.  And becoming that counselor often requires us to diminish our personal concerns so that we can increase the concerns of our client.

As a younger associate, I never really knew why we would settle a case or why we would proceed to a trial. I always assumed that the lawyers on both sides were doing what was best for their respective clients.  I later realized that on occasion principle would override reason, and, sometimes even worse, greed or personal interests may override virtue and true justice.  Where the parties should have settled a case, the case continued – not for any good reason – but for the purpose of either increasing fees or settling unreasonable vendettas.

Now that I am in the position to advise clients directly, I make a conscious, unequivocal effort to place the client’s concerns above my own – to advise them that settling a case is the most appropriate course of action, will most effectively advance their interests, and most expeditiously resolve the dispute, irrespective of any competing concern.  I also attempt to serve as their counselor, helping clients to understand that the anger and resentment that informed their decision-making early in the litigation must sometimes subside to achieve the best possible outcome for all involved.

That great lawyer Abraham Lincoln said that we as attorneys should “discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man.” He promised, and I know this to be true, that “There will still be business enough” with you serving in the role as peacemaker.

It is my goal to follow this position, and, in doing so, I hope to rise ever so slightly more toward our calling to our clients.

Our third calling is our calling to our profession.  It is often said that the practice of law is a “noble profession.”  But its nobility is only maintained through the daily efforts of those who work consistently to carry that mantle.

Our calling to our profession must begin with civility to one another.  In my limited years of practice, I have too often seen lawyers who, almost as a badge of honor, enjoy belittling and ridiculing opposing counsel.  I have seen lawyers who seemingly take pride in writing the most uncaring and spiteful communications to one another, as if to do so would garner some degree of strength or competitive advantage.

I have news for lawyers who believe that the more unkind and harsh you are the better you are performing – you are not.  In contrast, you are damaging yourself personally, your client’s position, and your profession as a whole.  These are the lawyers that make all the lawyer jokes true.  One of my favorite lawyer jokes, of course, is how many lawyer jokes are there?  The answer: only three.  The rest are true stories.

But by comparison, I admire those lawyers who go to great lengths to extend professional courtesy to one another: who will grant an extension when appropriate, who will offer the services of their office to another lawyer in need, who will embrace the bar’s call for collegiality.

These are the lawyers who will lead the bar, be examples to future generations of lawyers, and leave a strong legacy.  These lawyers aspire to our true “calling” to become peacemakers, mediators; calming the fires of disputes and not enraging them with our own malevolence.

Recently, I had an opportunity to represent a neurosurgeon in a matter.  The neurosurgeon was considering leaving his present practice for another practice.  He discussed the matter with his friend, another physician, who directed him to his brother in law – an attorney.  So the neurosurgeon called the attorney, showed him what was going on, and asked him a couple of questions.  The total interaction between the two individuals was approximately 10 minutes, the neurosurgeon thanked the lawyer for his time, they briefly discussed the brother-in-law’s family, and the neurosurgeon went on about his business, thought nothing of the conversation, and never acted on the substance of the discussion.

About a month later, the neurosurgeon received a bill from the attorney for nearly $600.  The neurosurgeon was puzzled, and inquired with the lawyer regarding why he received a bill. Keep in mind, the neurosurgeon never received an engagement letter, never received any correspondence from the lawyer, and never even knew what the lawyer’s hourly rate was.

Instead of the lawyer gently addressing the neurosurgeon’s concerns and attempting to work with him about the alleged attorney client relationship, the lawyer, the individual charged with the responsibility of absolving disputes and acting in the best interests of his apparent client and the public, began a nearly year-long campaign of harassing the neurosurgeon to recover the alleged $600 he was owed.  He then proceeded to file a lawsuit to recover these alleged fees.

Thankfully, I was able to tap into their collective cooler heads and bring this matter to a resolution.  Though as I sat in the courtroom, the court was hearing arraignments on the court’s television screen.  The first arraignment was for a young woman who remained incarcerated for contempt, primarily as a result of the inability to pay fees.  Most people paid little concern to these proceedings, but as I looked at my client, the neurosurgeon, I could see that he was quite moved by this young woman’s story.

After we put the settlement on the record, I shook the other lawyer’s hand and began to walk out of the court.  But as we approached the door, the neurosurgeon asked me, “Aaron, how do I pay for that young woman’s fees?”  I was understandably puzzled by this question – this neurosurgeon had to undergo nearly a year of torment from a lawyer who constantly hassled him regarding a $600 fee that many lawyers would have quickly written off.  Yet, not only did he no longer harbor any further ill will toward the lawyer – the neurosurgeon sought to pay a complete stranger’s fees, totaling an amount over the settlement we agreed to, to assist her in being released from incarceration.

I thought to myself: “what a remarkable instance of generosity.”  But I also thought more deeply: “which of these two individuals, the attorney or the neurosurgeon, most aptly exemplified the calling of the profession – to advance the cause of justice, to be a beacon of reconciliation and forgiveness?  It certainly was not the lawyer here; it was the neurosurgeon.

Lawyers should remain cognizant of their obligations to the profession.  Our actions in all regards can have an incredible impact on not only ourselves, but also how we are perceived by the public.  It is that obligation that will build the public’s trust in our profession and endear the public to us as a body.  We should routinely remind ourselves that the way we conduct ourselves, the way we approach situations, the way we delicately navigate often thorny circumstances reflects both on us, as well as our profession.

Finally, lawyers have a calling to our community, state, and nation.  Community, in my opinion, begins with ourselves.  We have an obligation to be our best selves, to be confident in our capabilities, and to become the best individuals we can be.  Your success as a lawyer is irrevocably tied to your own efforts, your own dedication to achieving higher heights, and your own commitment to becoming the best lawyer you can be.

Lawyers must then fulfill their calling to their families, knowing that all of the success in the world as a lawyer means nothing if you are regularly failing those who are most close to you.

Lawyers must lastly fulfill their calling to the society as a whole.  We are, by our very offices, leaders.  Without our prompting, people will look to us for direction, guidance, and counsel. It is incumbent upon us to rise to that calling and be the true embodiment of what it means to be a lawyer.

Drawing back on Abraham Lincoln, he once noted that harboring individual drive and desires is okay, but it may be a good idea to have aspirations beyond that.  He said that “every man is said to have his own peculiar ambition.”  But as for him, “he had none other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”  (emphasis added).

We must, in all our actions, remember that we are working toward the lofty calling and vocation inherent in the law.  Are we perfect?  By no means. And we should accept the human fault present in all of us.  But as lawyers we are held to a higher standard, and we should work diligently to reach that standard.

Every morning as I sit at my desk, I say an affirmation from the lawyer, St. Thomas More, wherein he asked every day to be “trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, [and] ever attentive to conscious.”

He then asks that people around him find “friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duty, counsel in adversity, [and] patience in pain.”

That is the hallmark of the calling.  Working one day at a time towards the goal; seeking every day to rise just a little bit higher to the calling of the practice of law.

Thank you very much again for your time and for this wonderful honor.  I certainly appreciate it.

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Filed under Alumni Stories and News, Knowledge, Skills, Ethics, Uncategorized

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