The picture window
By tradition, Herb, the only founding partner still alive, had the last word at law firm functions. As he stood before the celebrants of the law firm’s 60th anniversary, Herb felt deeply nostalgic; so much had changed since he and two law school buddies had rented a three-room suite in a deteriorating building on North Clark Street.
The law firm had grown into one of the best known in the city. It was an early leader in hiring women and minorities and electing them partners, and acquired a reputation for treating its staff well, even in tough times. The firm also established a presence in the virtual world before most of its competitors. These achievements came about at Herb’s urging.
From the firm’s inception, Herb had encouraged civic, bar, philanthropic, and pro bono endeavors by every partner, not just associates. And the firm financially supported organizations in which its lawyers served.
In recent years, however, the firm had slowly reinvented itself, and not all for the better, in Herb’s opinion. The monthly financial reports, which he still reviewed, depicted a firm pressing for more billable hours, placing less emphasis on pro bono service, and pruning its civic and philanthropic donations, despite steady profitability.
Herb began his remarks with obligatory thank-yous and oft-told tales of the firm’s early days. Then he paused. He had their attention.
“I know the practice of law is different today than in my day. But some things must never change. Let me share a story my father, also a lawyer, related to me when I started practicing law.”
“There lived a kind and generous man whose house had a large picture window from where he could view of the entire village. Whenever he saw someone who needed help, he always graciously accommodated him or her. He spent most mornings standing at that large picture window so the villagers would know he was there should they have a need.”
“The man became more wealthy with the passing years. One day he decided to make a concession for himself. Although he still helped the villagers, he placed pure silver along the edge of his large picture window. In time, though, he covered more of the picture window with silver, until the entire window was encased.”
“From then on, all the man could see was his own reflection instead of his neighbors who needed his help.”
“There are overwhelming and crushing needs, just beyond our windows. I am concerned that our lawyers have closed themselves off from the outside. That we have become too self-absorbed to help those who need our help. Self-absorbed with our practices. Self-absorbed with firm demands and with personal demands on our time, energy, and attention. Too many hours are devoted to the firm’s bottom-line and our own. Surely, that is not how it should be.”
“We must—must—look out our windows and serve the community in which we live. By performing at a minimum 50 hours of pro bono work a year, whether a senior or income partner or an associate. By actively participating in bar associations. By advancing civic and charitable causes. By helping those who ask us for help and those who do not ask, but who we know need our help.”
“Do not lose sight of the bigger picture. Do not become invisible. Do not close yourself off from the community.”
“Be present in the community. Look out for those we should be helping. Extend yourself. It is part of our calling as lawyers.”
“There is nothing more tragic in all this world than to know right and not to do it.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This article originally appeared in the July-August 2018 issue of CBA Record. Reprinted with permission of author and The Chicago Bar Association.