by Justice William W. Bedsworth
Wanna see my picture on the cover,
Wanna buy five copies for my mother
Wanna see my smilin’ face
On the cover of the Rolling Stone
~ Shel Silverstein1
So you saw my picture on the cover and opened the magazine anyway. Good for you. You’re obviously someone not easily discouraged.
Yes, they gave me the Franklin G. West Award. Now you know exactly how deep the Bar Association’s barrel is.
I’m over the moon about it. I mean, I’d like to try to be cool and dignified and matter-of-fact about this, but I’m not capable of it.2 This is a dream. In fact, calling it a dream understates it. You don’t so much dream about this as fantasize about it.
The list of winners is pretty much a pantheon of my heroes. I arrived here in 1971, the first year the Franklin G. West Award was given. And I’ve known or seen in action all of the people on that list.3
There are several people on it who are legal legends. The thought that someday someone who doesn’t know me will look at my name and think I must have been of the same ilk as those people amazes and thrills me. It’s like saying someday someone will look at a list and think, “Mantle, Musial, Aaron, Bedsworth, Trout . . . .”
It’s an amazing list. And the best thing about it is that there are no sharks on that list. None. Zero.
There are tigers on the list. And there are Clydesdales. There are even a few golden retrievers—people whose ability to inspire trust made it unnecessary for them to bare their fangs in anything but a smile.
But there are no sharks. You don’t earn your way onto that list by sharp practices or ethical corner-cutting. You don’t get there by leaving blood in the water.
At least until this year, you got there by inspiring people’s trust.4
I’m utterly convinced of that. I’ve told every law student, every extern, every law clerk I’ve counseled that they should view trustworthiness as their stock in trade. Not intelligence, not glibness, not cleverness, not even knowledge of the law. Those are valuable assets, and you’d be well advised to cultivate them assiduously. But none of them will get you as far as trust.
A career in the law is a lifetime spent trying to get people to trust you. You try to get judges to trust your reading of the law, juries to trust your exposition of the facts, and—perhaps most important and least appreciated—other lawyers to trust you.
Your colleagues have to know they can rely on your word. Your reputation as a straight-shooter is your most important asset. No case . . . no client . . . no cause . . . is worth giving that up for.
If you’re going to come out of this career telling people—as I do—“I’m the luckiest man you ever met,” there’s only one way to do it. Inspire people’s trust.
You can do that without being a pushover. You can do it without giving your client one whit less than he/she deserves from you. You can be aggressive and tough as hell—you’ll find plenty of people on the list who fit that description.
You’ll find plenty of people you knew would never give up, would never compromise their client’s interests. You knew they would fight ‘til the last dog died.5
But you knew that dog would not die of poisoning. You knew if you were up against one of the people on that list you did not need anyone to cover your back. Your back was safe. Your front might take a helluva beating, but your back was safe.
That kind of trust is earned through fairness and civility.
That should be good news. Fairness and civility should be within your reach, even if some of the other qualities I mentioned aren’t.
After all, you can’t get smarter, and you can’t get cleverer. You’re pretty much playing the hand you were dealt in those areas.
And while experience will increase your knowledge of the law and likely make you more articulate, it will have the same effect on everybody else you’re up against, so you probably aren’t going to make up much ground on the rest of the profession in those areas.
But fairness and civility can be cultivated as surely and as easily as tomatoes. And, like tomatoes, once you start growing them, you’ll be amazed at how naturally and reliably they come up.
Hell, you started out with a deep reservoir of fairness. That’s what drew us all to the profession. I have a theory that our profession is made up almost entirely of people with a heightened sense of fairness—people who are disturbed, offended, antagonized, even outraged by unfairness.
If you have a child who constantly complains that something is “not fair,” start saving up for law school tuition.
So you have a deep reservoir of commitment to fairness. Draw on it.
Sure, there are times when instinct conflicts with our desire to win, or our desire to make money, or our sense of obligation to our client. And there are times when it’s just inconvenient for us or requires us to overlook the obstinacy or obnoxiousness of opposing counsel.
But the reservoir is always there and you have to make it your most reliable resource. Sometimes you have to dig deep to get to it. But you always can, and you always should.
You may not ever be reputed as a genius or a great speaker, but a reputation as a person of integrity is always available.
And if that’s the reputation you want, civility is your best and most accessible ally. It should be the easiest for you to call on. It doesn’t require long nights of preparation; it doesn’t require hours of MCLE and the reading of treatises. You don’t have to pay for lessons or spend hours practicing it. All you have to do is remind yourself of who you are and who your adversary is.
We are officers of the court, officers of the Third Branch of a great and powerful system of government. We have been this nation’s warriors of democracy and justice for two centuries. We are the last line of defense for the Rule of Law, which is the sine qua non of American freedom.
If you can’t respect that . . . and respect the fact your adversary is another human being wearing the same warrior’s garb and deserving of the treatment you would expect for yourself . . . well, you’ve got bigger problems than how this particular case turns out.
So look at the names on the Franklin G. West Award list. That’s how they got there. People trusted them. And that trust turned into admiration and respect.
I’d make the obligatory comment about being humbled by my inclusion on that list, but I’ve never understood that usage of the word, and besides, nobody who knows me thinks me capable of genuine humility.
Maybe I should say it just to give those people a laugh. After all, the Bar’s given me this space for almost thirty-eight years with the idea that I would make people laugh. Or at least smile. And the thought of me mustering up humility would probably accomplish that.
But I don’t have it in me. Not today. Today, what I have is gratitude. Gratitude, amazement, and a few tears.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.