Frank Stevenson 2017-04-27 04:35:50
Telling the Difference Asked what he would do if the world were ending tomorrow, a 16th century theologian reputedly replied that he would plant a tree. Quite an expression of steadfast hopefulness, self-understanding, and stewardship—that our duty to care for the precious things entrusted us abides even our inability to fully see its results. And that perhaps this inability is how we tell the precious things in the first place. While there are competing views, I doubt the world’s ending. So, customary of clapped-out bar presidents, I present the year’s accomplishments—which all bear that steadfast hopefulness of tree planting. Take TOJI. While most legal incubators take two-plus years to implement, our Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator was operational in 10 months. And while “sustainability” is the primary threat to incubators, TOJI’s funding is secure. Its first cohort of participants started last month; when the second and third cohorts join the 18-month program next October and April, TOJI will be among the largest incubators anywhere. Imagine TOJI graduates serving the everyday legal needs of everyday Texans, and TOJI inspiring incubators elsewhere! But now, it’s like planting a tree. Take Sunset. The Sunset Advisory Commission determined our bar is performing well and should be continued another 12 years. When we last went through Sunset, our bar was a third smaller, had roughly 60 percent of the women members it has now and 97 percent fewer minority members, and offered a fraction as many programs. Imagine what growth will be accomplished over another 12 years! But now, it’s like planting a tree. We’re drawn to accomplishments that reveal their benefits and authorship overtly and suddenly—like lightning. But the progress of precious things is often achieved subtly and steadfastly—like the growth of trees. Perhaps that even tells the difference. “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime,” Reinhold Niebuhr observed; “therefore we must be saved by hope.” So, shaded by trees we didn’t plant, we need the hopefulness to plant trees that will only shade others. As described in previous columns, we do that every day. The first line of the Emily Dickinson poem—“‘Hope’ is a thing with feathers”—is luminous, but the fourth line totes more insight: “And never stops—at all.” Hope is the thing that never stops. More than how we know it, that’s how it is known. Before my daughter began representing a Central American mother pro bono, that immigrant surely felt the world was ending. Still, she hoped. When the exemption essential to her naturalization was obtained, my daughter texted, “She wouldn’t stop hugging me!” I replied, “It’s like she’d never stop—at all?” Last year, Texas lawyers gave roughly 3.21 million hours of free or deeply discounted legal services to the poor, worth approximately $834.4 million. Lots of hopeful tree-planting. Imagine what things “worth doing” will result because those clients were helped—and not just things during their or our lifetimes. I partake in a Central American mother’s future contributions and those of her descendants because I fathered the lawyer who made that mother an American. Imagine if her child became a great patriot! It’s happened before. Things “worth doing” won’t obediently confine themselves to our timetables or even our lives. Thus we need a readiness to understand ourselves as engaged in something larger and longer than ourselves. Strasbourg Cathedral, which Goethe called a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God,” took more than 400 years to build. It’s now a manifestly precious thing; but how could you set the first stone of an edifice your descendants to the 10th generation won’t see completed without that self-understanding? I’ve written all year how every kind of Texas lawyer—reflecting that self-understanding—is planting trees and setting stones. Thus it’s perplexing when Texas lawyers claim their bar bears the mark of one kind of lawyer only, perhaps implying it should bear theirs instead. First, it’s inaccurate. The bar’s leadership mirrors membership. For example, 43 percent of Texas lawyers practice in firms of 10 or fewer lawyers, and 57 percent of the bar board’s lawyers do. I’m the only big-firm president over the last six years and for at least the next two—the plurality being solos—matching the bar’s percentage of big-firm lawyers. But worse than being the wrong answer, it’s the wrong question. That the bar could or should bear the stamp of only one kind of lawyer? That our differences should be all we can see when the people we serve cannot see them at all ? That we all aren’t instead Texas lawyers, in this together, grateful for our tree-planting forebears, entrusted with a precious thing, engaged in something larger and longer than ourselves? My grandfather—who graduated from law school 90 years ago this month—inspired me to this profession. Among his interests was the work of immigrant French silversmiths named “Rivoire,” later anglicized to “Revere.” He once explained how to distinguish a modern reproduction of a Paul Revere bowl from the precious original. The surface of the copy is like a mirror—it obediently returns your own reflection—while the patriot’s original has a complexity emanating from its painstaking hand-shaping and its proper tending over the years. You cannot coax your own reflection from the precious piece, nor would you want to. A piece that loses this identifying aspect to mishandling sheds half its value. Instead, the recalcitrant surface of the original testifies to its worth, as well as to the care invested in its making and its passage across generations to those blessed to be entrusted with it today. Big firms or small, plaintiff or defense, transactional or trial, criminal or civil may be tempted to shape the State Bar of Texas so it obligingly offers back nothing but a reflection of themselves. But that would be foolish and spendthrift, because truly precious things never do. In fact, that’s how we tell the difference. FRANK STEVENSON President, State Bar of Texas
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