On May 20, 2018, Margaret W. Wong, Esq. returned to her alma mater, University at Buffalo School of Law, to attend the commencement ceremony and receive an honorary Doctorate.
In 1976, Ms. Wong received her J.D. and has been practicing law ever since. Her daughter, Allison Chan, also received her J.D. from University at Buffalo School of Law and is a practicing attorney with the firm.
Ms. Wong was especially moved by the commencement keynote address given by Terrence M. Connors, Esq., a Buffalo-area attorney. Following, with permission from Mr. Connors, is the text of the address:
UNIVERSITY AT BUFFALO SCHOOL OF LAW COMMENCEMENT
MAY 20, 2018 KEYNOTE ADDRESS
FIRST & FOREMOST CONGRATULATIONS!!!
You are now our Class of 2018!
Enjoy the day with your family and friends. You’ve earned it. Pat each other on the back — you’ve earned that also.
I’m here to tell you, in 10 minutes, what your next 40 years will be like.
I often think that if I could go back 40 years and select any profession — and make no mistake about it, the law is a profession — and if I knew that I would be successful at that profession, I would pick the law in a
heartbeat. It would not even be close — unless I could be point guard for the New York Knicks.
Think about it for a moment. Think about what we, as lawyers, have the privilege and the opportunity to do.
Lawyers decide who is free to live in our society and who must be removed, sometimes permanently.
Lawyers hold not only our fate in their hands, but that of our children, whether they come from broken homes or frozen embryos.
At the other end of life, it is lawyers who are doing much of the work to prepare the elderly to live out their days in dignity and independence.
Lawyers are, for the most part, the only group in our democracy who have standing to challenge any branch of our government.
In trade and commerce, lawyers are the enforcement mechanism for those who break their contracts or avoid their debts.
Lawyers act as liaisons or advocates between different segments of society, different branches of government, between public and private sectors.
As a former President of the American Bar Association pointed out: “we represent, or mediate between, a vast array of different and conflicting interests in society.”
Try to imagine a free and open democratic system like ours without a strong legal system, without dedicated, zealous lawyers. It simply wouldn’t work.
Which is also why, in the final analysis, we lawyers should not be guided by whether we are popular or not.
If popularity were the only yardstick — Plessy v. Ferguson would never have given way to Brown v. Topeka Board of Education.
Every day we have the opportunity to change people’s lives and even effect a positive change in the law. It doesn’t matter whether the change comes in a high profile matter or in the closed quarters of your conference rooms.
Indeed, the moments in legal history and legal fiction most relished by lawyers, and sometimes even the general public, are when lawyers have effected a positive change while undertaking the representation of unpopular clients.
Those who still speak favorably about our profession rarely conclude their remarks without some reference to Atticus Finch, the Maycomb County, Alabama lawyer in the stirring best seller, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch zealously advocated the cause of a black man, accused by a white woman of rape in the deep south. As you turn the pages of the novel, the hatred of Atticus and his family is almost palpable.
When John Adams undertook the defense of the British solders involved in the Boston Massacre, an entire nation, young as it was, questioned his patriotism.
But, these were lawyers who understood and believed in the concept of zealous advocacy. Although these lawyers are now universally acclaimed and respected, at the time they provided representation to their clients, they were scorned and ridiculed.
We should not, of course, turn a deaf ear to criticism. We cannot hide behind our principles of zealous advocacy and professional detachment.
We are not amoral technicians.
We have an ethical duty to improve the legal system so that it may approach the ideal of justice.
Some of you may have sleepless nights, I’ve had my share, about the consequences of the actions you take on behalf of your clients.
A drunk driver, whose license you save, may one day injure another. A doctor you defend in a malpractice case may one day negligently harm a patient. An invention you helped patent may cause injury to thousands.
But, the time for righting these wrongs is not during the representation of your client. So long as you represent a client, you must do so zealously within the confines of the law whatever the consequences.
I understand the cocktail chatter and the inevitable question as to how our moral compass permits us to represent certain clients. I understand that it has become fashionable to claim that there are too many lawyers.
Former Chief Justice Warren Burger, has said: “There are too many laws and too much litigation”
Even thoughtful Americans criticize us in essays and editorials.
We are a brain drain to unproductive pursuits. We add nothing to the gross national product.
We give comfort to industrial countries that emphasis the growth of the economy.
Now, I know better, but I have been at this for a number of years.
I’m aware —
It is always the cynics who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing. But, I worry and wonder how these comments effect you, young lawyers, on the threshold — about to serve a society — that offers criticism and sometimes hostility.
Well, take heart, this criticism is neither novel nor valid.
In one form or another, we lawyers have heard this criticism for centuries and proudly stand undeterred.
The Book of Luke in the New Testament first described the heavy burden that lawyers must bear.
We all know Shakespeare’s words placed in the mouth of “Dick the Butcher”. That often quoted, but clearly misunderstood exhortation in Henry VI. It was a compliment from the Bard not an applause line.
Even Dickens, himself a lawyer, launched a strong attack on the legal establishment with the publication of “Bleak House”.
In 1737, Benjamin Franklin chirped in Poor Richards Almanac: “A countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats.”
In an 1905 address to the Harvard Ethical Society, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned: “It is true that at the present time the lawyer does not hold as high a position with the people as he held 75 or even 50 years ago.”
At times, this criticism has been accurate – on the mark.
The law has been abused and by lawyers:
To protect slavery.
To deprive rights.
To tolerate exploitation.
To mask justice for personal privilege.
During the American Revolution, a good portion of this Country’s Bar lined up with the British.
But, the direction has always been upward, toward the light, the path has been the higher road.
It was a lawyer who resisted the Stamp Acts.
It was a lawyer who wrote the Declaration of Independence in America and “The Rights of Man” in France.
I’m proud to say it was a trial lawyer who issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Of the 55 men assembled to write the Constitution, whom Thomas Jefferson called an assemblage of “Demi- Gods”, 30 were lawyers.
Of the 39 who signed the final draft, 20 were lawyers.
While doctors treated Benjamin Franklin’s gout with leeches, we lawyers were crafting a timeless Constitution.
While our ranks have included a number of rogues. There have been a far greater number of role models – men and women who sat in the equivalent of these very chairs.
Men and women who understood that success is not measured by the accumulation of material possessions.
They were lawyers who could not turn away from other people’s struggles because that is who we are — we are problem solvers. We are the lubricants and solvents which reduce the frictions of a complex society. That is our special place.
Well, how do you get to that special place? There is no magic formula. There is no set path.
Many of you will find your own path, but here are a few lodestars to guide you:
1. Honesty and integrity – this should be the touchstone. The rule to the exclusion of all other rules. Your reputation starts from the first day you become a lawyer. It is far easier to gain a good reputation than to erase a bad one.
2. Excellence of work product – your client is entitled to no less. Trust me, clients appreciate effort even more than outcome. A client doesn’t care how much you know until he or she knows how much you care. The best way to demonstrate to a client that you care about their case is to actually care about their case. My personal definition of excellence. We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. Don’t settle for how something has always been done. 25 years of experience is not 1 year repeated 25 times. Take what others have done, adapt it and make it better. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, and the name sake of our new Courthouse, had an interesting observation about those who practiced before the High Court. “As I view the procession of lawyers who pass before the Supreme Court, I often am reminded of an old parable. Three stone masons were asked, one after the other, what they were doing. The first, without looking up, answered, ‘earning my living’. The second replied, ‘I am shaping this stone to pattern’. The third lifted his eyes and said ‘I am building a cathedral’. So it is with the men and women who labor before the Court. The attitude and preparation of some show that they have no conception of their effort higher than to make a living. Others are dutiful, but uninspired in trying to shape their little case to a winning pattern. But, it lifts up the heart of a Judge when an advocate stands at the Bar who knows that he or she is building a Cathedral.”
3. Seek out a law practice that makes you excited about the work you do — it may not be your first job or even your second job, but find the niche that gives you the most gratification. The place that makes you eager to go to work every day.
4. Civility — toward other lawyers, your staff — and it goes without saying –toward your clients. Civility is not a sign of weakness! We don’t fight from our knees, but we fight within the rules of evidence and procedure.
5. Professional Education – continuing legal education – you owe it to your clients. Your education does not end with Law School. Learn from others. Cultivate mentors.
6. Be resilient when things don’t go your way. When you lose, don’t lose the lesson. You will always learn much more from your failures than your success.
7. Keep a feel-good file. Collect the notes from clients that are complimentary. When the days get dark, and they will, take a walk through those grateful comments.
More than 80 years ago, then Chief Judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, Benjamin Cardozo, said it better than most to the first graduating class of lawyers at St. John’s Law Schools:
“The law is what you and I are making it. That is the heavy burden of our calling, but that is also its unfading glory. That is the strain and the woe of it, leaving creases and scars on the faces of the veterans, but that is also the heartening appeal of it, reflecting light, joy and hope in the faces of the new recruits, eager to join the fray and fill the ranks.”
WELCOME TO THE FRAY.