Sunday, July 30, 2017

Gray Heads and Glory

As I entered a post office one day, I saw a reflection in the glass of someone walking behind me with a slow, stooped step.  I held the door open and as I looked back, I noticed that he was an old man wearing a U.S. Army uniform and that he was a captain.  I further noticed that he was carrying several bags and, being in no particular hurry, I offered to help carry some of his load.  Of course, he handed me his entire load and began, in the way of old men, to tell me some of his life experiences.

The Captain was born during the Great Depression and he came of age during World War II.  To his immense regret, that war ended before he was old enough to join up.  However, he enlisted as soon as he was of age, and finished training in time for the start of the Korean War.  He came away with a hatred of both MacArthur and communism, a love for military life and Korean culture, and the unshakable belief that he had been fighting against a great evil.  He stayed in the army after hostilities ended, met a pretty Red Cross volunteer while home on leave, and swept her off her feet.   He re-enlisted as soon as Vietnam began to heat up and served several tours of duty.  His health began to give him problems and he was medically discharged before the conclusion of the Vietnam War.  He tried to rejoin for Desert Storm and Desert Shield, but was denied.  He is still angry with Bush '41 for not granting him a waiver to serve in Iraq.     He built a successful business, raised several children to adulthood, and now spends his time doting on his grandchildren and volunteering extensively with veteran support groups.  In fact, I was helping him carry in several dozen support packages he was sending to our men and women serving away from their families.

I asked the Captain about the uniform.  He lit up at the question and explained that his body is failing him.  His doctors have only given him so long to live. There is little they can do to stop or prevent his impending death.  Therefore, he decided that if death was coming for him, he was going to meet it on his terms.  He possesses two uniforms.  After getting his diagnosis, he made the decision to always be wearing one of them because when he goes, he wants to go out wearing the uniform so many of his friends died wearing.  Death is not dignified, but the Captain has chosen to meet it with all the dignity he can muster.

I met with an older attorney recently who had some information I needed for one of my clients.  He was funny and passionate and quickly took a shine to me because I greatly enjoyed listening to his stories from his long legal career.  He told me that after graduating from law school in the 1960s, he walked away from several offers that Memphis big law firms made to him.  He settled near his hometown in Middle Tennessee and hung out a shingle, hoping to correct an apathetic court system that perpetuated injustice and an apathetic society that turned a blind eye to the rampant poverty in its midst.  A few weeks into his practice, an elderly woman came to his office and begged for him to save her from eviction.  She offered him twenty or so dollar bills and he was moved to look over her case.  He realized that she had a rock-solid legal claim and he decided to take it on, but not to take her money.  He won her case and many years later, his client died peacefully in her sleep in that home.  Several years before her death, she came back to see him about a potential medical malpractice case.  He took it on and she received a multi-million dollar settlement.  His cut was so large he could have retired right then and there and still be spending it today.   He did not retire.  He is an old warhorse and still fighting the good fight 50 years later.  He told me that I made the best decision possible in choosing to go solo and he continued to regale me with stories of his fierce, passionate life.  He impressed upon me his belief that I will end up having the same impact that he himself has had.

Both these men have been on my mind a lot since our respective encounters.  The Captain found a cause and an institution he believed in and he served it with all his heart and at the risk of life and limb.  He saw evil in the world and he acted.  In his twilight, he looks back and finds the courage for what lies ahead.  The older attorney forsook a comfortable, lucrative job and blazed his own path.  He saw the injustice and the blanket poverty in his community and he devoted his life and his career to fighting both.  They are both heroes, fighters, idealists, and inspiring.  As their heads have grayed, they have increased in glory.  Every time I face fear or the temptation towards apathy, I think of these two and I remember their pride.   When confronted with their examples, it is impossible to give in to fear or to embrace apathy and it is entirely possible to make the daily choices to live now as they have.  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Taxman Cometh

Taxes were due a week ago and tax day always reminds me of my first advocacy client.  In my second year of law school (making me a 2L in legal jargon), I secured a job in a nonprofit dedicated to serving individuals with disabilities.  My role within this organization was to advocate for clients who were suffering from discrimination for their disabilities.  The executive director had many, many years of experience advocating for disability rights.  She supervised my efforts and I also worked closely with one of my law professors.

My first advocacy client was a sweet, mousy woman who tiptoed through life desperately trying to avoid attracting notice.  She struggled to say 'no' to anyone and that tended to get her into trouble.  Some rather unscrupulous businesses convinced her to sign some contracts that she did not understand and that cost her more money than she could afford.  Due to her ongoing desire to avoid attracting notice, she lived with this situation for quite some time before seeking help.  She has several cognitive and intellectual disabilities, so someone suggested that she participate in a support group our nonprofit organized.  After a few months of coming to our events and forming relationships with my coworkers, she asked for advice on how to handle her situation with the unscrupulous businesses. This is how I was introduced to her.

In Tennessee, all parties to a contract must have the "mental capacity" to enter into a contract.  To oversimplify, this means that everyone must be able to understand that signing a contract has consequences, including the legal requirement to comply with its terms.  After interacting for about five minutes with my client, I realized that she most likely did not have the mental capacity to enter into these contracts.  The individuals who induced her to sign these contracts should have come to this realization as well.  Obviously, they chose to accept her signature.

As this was my first advocacy project, I spent almost 30 hours conducting legal research and another 10 hours writing a letter to these businesses laying out the case that my client did not have the mental capacity to enter into these contracts and proposing that she buy out of the contracts at what we believed was a reasonable price (a similar project would probably take me less than 5 hours total today).  My organization's executive director and my law professor were heavily involved in the letter-writing process and we ended up with a powerful end product.  In the end, none of the businesses chose to pursue the matter and accepted our terms.  We were ecstatic.

Over the next two years, I was privileged to watch that client blossom.   Some of my other coworkers helped her secure employment, set up a strong support network, and to otherwise help her get on her feet.  She was able to find part-time work as a receptionist and to slowly grow a side business.  Shortly before I graduated law school, she came into my office one day to show me her tax return.  She owed an amount less than $20 and she was in tears.  At first, I thought she was upset because she would not be getting a tax refund, but she was in tears because she would be paying into the tax system for the first time in her entire life.  She felt like she was finally contributing something to society and that realization made her literally weep with joy.  "Joy" is not a word I have ever used before in connection with paying taxes.

Advocacy is empowering.  We fought for our client and this communicated to her that we recognized her inherent value.  She was able to score a win and feel like a winner for the first time in a long while.  That feeling spurred her to take on more challenges in her life and to succeed at them.  She turned her life around in a little over a year.  This lesson has paid dividends in my criminal defense practice.  I have represented innocent defendants and I have represented defendants who were very guilty.  Even with the guilty clients, I am always amazed how positively defense attorneys can impact their clients by treating them with respect, with dignity, and by fighting for them.  I have yet to see someone turn their lives around to the extent that my first client did, but I have a long career head of me yet!  

Gray Heads and Glory

As I entered a post office one day, I saw a reflection in the glass of someone walking behind me with a slow, stooped step.  I held the door...