Why lawyers do what we do

An email conversation with a friend this week reminded me of a couple of things that are worth sharing.

Back in 1998, then-Lieutenant Governor Joe Kernan was invited to give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. People in the Notre Dame community were pretty grumpy, and even Kernan acknowledged that he thought ND was reaching toward the bottom of the barrel when they invited him. Kernan actually ended up giving a pretty good and appropriate presentation. I’ll try to get this part of it as accurate as I can, but memories fade over time. The details may be a little off, but you’ll get the point.

Kernan talked about how people in public service and public office are often asked what are they most proud of. Some say this legislation or that project. Kernan said that when he was mayor of South Bend, he would always tell people that if there was ever anything he could do for them to just give him a call.

One Saturday morning Kernan’s phone rang at home. On the other end was a woman who explained that she’d just been called by officials at a military base in Germany where her son was stationed. She was told that her son had been seriously injured in an accident and that she should get there as soon as possible. The woman didn’t have a passport, didn’t know what to do, but remembered Kernan saying people should call if they ever needed anything.

To make a long story short, Kernan got ahold of the voter registration people, got them to open up their office on a Saturday and register the woman as a voter. He then contacted other people to get whatever papers she needed to travel without waiting for a passport. In the end, the woman was on a plane to Germany, where she was able to spend a few hours with her son before he died.

Getting that mother to her son’s bedside was the thing Kernan was most proud of.

Although Joe Kernan, to my knowledge, is not a lawyer, his story reflects upon something that we lawyers try to do when we can. It may not be as dramatic, but every once in a while we do some good. I can recall once case from a number of years ago.

One late morning I received a call from a woman who was in a divorce. I was representing her husband, so I was really confused about why she was calling me—especially since she was represented by counsel. I knew her from before the divorce, though, and the divorce was a very cooperative effort. So, I took the call.

The woman explained she wasn’t calling about the divorce at all, but she was trying to help a neighbor. As I remember it, the neighbor was a host family for a high school student from the Czech Republic. There was some kind of SNAFU about the high school transcript and whether she would receive credit back home for the classes she took. The young lady was ready to leave for home in the next day or so. Understandably, she and the host family were quite distressed. I spoke with the “host mom” and got the details. I really didn’t know what to do, but I figured making some phone calls couldn’t hurt.

So, I called the Czech Republic embassy in Washington, D.C. I explained the situation, and the receptionist got me transferred to the right desk. The person at the embassy explained that the transcript would need to be notarized, the county clerk would have to attest to the notary’s valid status, and a judge would have to confirm that the county clerk was the duly elected and acting clerk.

At that point I realized this would be easy. I called the host mom back and explained that she and the young lady should come to my office with the transcript. While waiting for them to arrive, I prepared a statement for our county clerk to sign, and I called one of our local judges to explain what was needed. The judge graciously agreed to help and said I should go to her chambers after visiting the clerk’s office. (I also called the clerk to make sure she was around.)

The young lady and her host family arrived at my office. I had the transcript notarized, and then we went to the county courthouse. We visited the clerk, who looked up the notary’s status in her official records and confirmed that the notary was in good standing. The clerk signed the document I prepared attesting that the notary’s standing was valid.

We then went to visit the judge. I presented a general “in re” order for her to sign, affirming that the clerk was in fact the proper clerk holding office. We got all the paperwork together and the host family and exchange student were on their way.

When the host family asked how much they owed me, I told them nothing. The look of relief and smile on the young lady’s face was more than enough payment. A few weeks later, I received a very nice thank you note from the young lady. She told me that the paperwork was all accepted by the authorities in her school system, and she was very appreciative of my efforts.

I still keep that card in my desk drawer and occasionally run across it. I’m proud that I was able to help this family and their exchange student. It took so very little time and effort, but knowing who to call was what made it possible for me to be of assistance. (Okay, I didn’t know that calling the embassy was the right thing, but I figured someone there could put me in touch with the right people.)

So what’s the point of this post, to sing the praises of lawyers and people who do good deeds? No. It’s simply to remind my colleagues that we should do these sorts of things from time to time—and I know that a lot of them do. I don’t care if the public knows about these things. The good deeds of some lawyers won’t erase the negative impression we have in the public’s eye. But we lawyers keep doing these good things because we can and we find satisfaction in the calm we can bring to someone’s life.

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