by Justice William W. Bedsworth
I’m facing seventy and surgery this week. I don’t know which of these things bears the greater responsibility for it, but I’m even less confident than usual in my ability to be funny this month.
That may surprise you. Guy tries to write humor for thirty-seven years, you figure he must think he’s funny. And I do. Sometimes.
But not always. I’m sure I amuse myself more than anyone else. I sit down every month feeling like I should start with an apology to all the people who will come to this page and think, “Aw jeez, not this guy again.”
But this month will be different. This month I won’t try to be funny. This month I will try something even tougher: I’ll try to be helpful.
After forty-seven years of practicing law, I’ve come to some conclusions about how it should be done. Setting a few of them out here saved me the task of being funny this month.
Why should you care? Because I am not only the luckiest man you ever met, I’m damn near the happiest.
At seventy, my life is so good it’s starting to undermine my faith in a just God. So I must be doing a few things right (even if writing these columns isn’t one of them). Here’s what I’ve concluded so far.
Conclusion 1: It’s never your assistant’s fault. Judge Robert Banyard taught me this almost fifty years ago. I was a young prosecutor sitting in Judge Banyard’s master calendar court waiting to be assigned out when an attorney who had failed to do something said it was his secretary’s fault.
Banyard took him apart in sections. He pulverized him so completely it was necessary to call a recess so the custodian could come in and trowel the puddle off the floor. The stain is probably still there on the carpet. Made a big impression on me. I never blamed anything on my assistant.
Conclusion 2: It’s probably no one else’s fault either. Own your mistakes. Every one you admit to increases your credibility. People will be more likely to believe you when you say it isn’t your fault.
And credibility is your stock in trade. Being smart is good, being articulate is good, being charming is good. But none of them has any value except as they make you credible. You will spend your whole professional life trying to get people to believe that you are the right person to believe. Admitting your mistakes is a great step in that direction.
Conclusion 3: What goes around comes around. This is the Hoyt Axton Rule. Axton was a folk-singer I liked a lot. But he had an admitted problem with substance abuse. I saw him perform several times when I thought he was under the influence, and he was notorious for missing performances entirely.1
I once saw him flub the opening of a song twice—each time coming in vocally ahead of his own instrumental accompaniment. As he started strumming the intro a third time, he said, “I’m just gonna wait for it this time; you wait long enough everything comes around again.”
Axton was right: Everything you do will come back to you eventually.
Conclusion 4: You want the things that come back to you to be good things.
What’s more, they come back with interest. Compound interest.
Exhibit A: I have the best job in the system. No, not the legal system; the solar system.
You think I got this job by being brilliant? Of course not. That’s the hard way to success, and I’ve never been much for doing things the hard way.
I got this job by being trustworthy—which is a lot easier.
I got this job because a lot of people trusted me. They trusted me because I had tried to treat them well. And they were kind enough to communicate that trust to a governor.
I try every day to be worthy of that trust. It’s hard, but it’s a whole helluva lot easier than being brilliant.
Treat people well and they will usually reciprocate. If they don’t, they should familiarize themselves with Dante because they’re headed to one of his circles of hell. And you don’t want to be there to greet them.
Conclusion 5: There is always a Diedrich case. Judge John Conley taught me this one when we were in the District Attorney’s Office.
I was promoted into John’s job when he was promoted to another one. At the time, I was working on new trial motions in the bribery and conspiracy convictions of Ralph Diedrich. Ralph was the Chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors until he was caught taking bribes. It was the biggest case of my life, and trying to learn my new job and plow through thousands of pages of complex record had me putting in long hours. Sleep and sunlight had become strictly conceptual.
One day John asked me how I liked my new job. My response was, “Well, it’s kind of hard to say right now; I’m so swamped with the Diedrich case. I think it’ll be fine after that.” John looked at me sympathetically and said, “Beds, there is always a Diedrich case.”
No matter how important the case you’re handling now, there is another one—at least equally important, probably more—coming out of the chute in the next go-round. No case is worth sacrificing your credibility. No case is worth giving up the trust of your colleagues.
Conclusion 6: What you’re doing is very difficult. Cut yourself some slack.
When I was a sophomore in high school I spent a frighteningly large part of my summer wages on bus fare and a box seat ticket behind home plate for a Dodger game. Koufax was pitching and I wanted to watch. I was a junior varsity catcher and I thought I could learn from watching the greatest pitcher of all time.2
Koufax lasted 2 2/3 innings. The Philadelphia Phillies, the second-worst team in baseball at the time, beat him like a rented mule. He was slightly less effective than the attorney who had blamed his mistake on his secretary, and the result was pretty much identical.
So for the last fifty-five years or so, whenever I’ve performed badly—or seen someone else perform badly—I’ve been able to remind myself that even Koufax had bad days. Practicing law—like pitching—is very difficult. It’s so difficult we have at least one statute designed just to deal with falling on your sword after failing (Code of Civil Procedure Section 473). Forgive yourself and vow to get better.3
Conclusion 7: There is no greater engine on the planet for doing good than the American legal system. You went to law school to do good. That’s all there is to it. That’s the whole job description. And if you lose sight of that you might as well be selling aluminum siding.
Conclusion 8: We have been allowed to live a life of incredible privilege. My wife likes to remind me that the trick is who you compare yourself to. Forget the Lives of the Rich and Famous. If you don’t have to hike through the desert with a jerry can to get water, you’re lucky. Spend some time every day comparing yourself to people who really do have it tough.
Corollary 8b: Never lose sight of how good your life will still be, even if you lose this motion, this case, or this partnership. If you keep your eye on that ball, it will lower your blood pressure and improve your chances of taking advantage of the other conclusions.
Conclusion 9: Only the good die young. Medical science has lengthened not only lives, but careers. When I came out of law school my intention was to practice until I was sixty-five. If I had to.
Now I’m seventy and I can’t bring myself to quit. There are still too many opportunities to do good.
You’re gonna be doing this a long time. Do it right.
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 email@example.com. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.