Heroes

Mr. Koch had a tough job. He had a room full of hormon­ally driven 12- and 13-year-olds to teach. Most of their fathers were somewhere else: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the lucky ones, Europe. All parents know adolescence is a challenge, but these kids were Army brats, with absentee fathers, whose lives were in constant transition. Mr. Koch, through a combination of toughness, patience and kindness, brought us successfully through the sixth grade at Wilshire Elementary in San Antonio, Texas. For that year, he kept us safe from our­selves and pushed us forward. He is still one of my heroes.

We need heroes, and if we are fortunate, we are surrounded by them. They set markers to lead us forward and goals to lead us higher. When we are young, we have many heroes: the rock star, the teacher, the scout leader, the soccer coach, the senior associate who guides us. Farther along, we think less about heroes, though they are no less necessary.

I have just finished two books, side by side, that remind me that heroes are not just for young people. I do not know Tom Strong. I met him once, briefly, three weeks ago, but almost every lawyer in Missouri knows of him. His autobiography, Strong Advocate: The Lift of a Trial Lawyer, recounts the many cases he successfully pursued for his clients. Interestingly, he comments little on money, other than the occasional reference to a "substantial settlement," of which there were many. Mostly the book is a series of stories about wrongs righted, justice pursued, all in the context of a lot of hard work, toughness, patience and kindness. Anyone who reads it will grasp the markers he sets and the goals he inspires. He is another hero of mine, even though I only met him once, for just a few minutes.

The second book is The Fall of the House of Zeus, the story of Dickie Scruggs, a Mississippi lawyer credited with developing the nationwide tobacco litigation. Scruggs successfully pursued a variety of class action claims for bad products, asbestos, tobacco, etc., leading to great wealth and influence. Like a Greek tragedy, though, the central figure collapses under the weight of his excesses and finishes his career in jail for attempting to bribe a judge.

I do not know Mr. Scruggs either. Perhaps he forgot his heroes. The nuances of such stories usually belie a black and white conclusion. But the overriding tone of the book suggests that enormous money and the influence it purchases were the goal, and - more importantly - that the boundaries of that chase were fuzzy at best.

It seems to me the difference can be summed up in one question: "Who is the story about, the lawyer or the client?" Or, as a fellow I knew in Devil's Elbow put it: ''Are you interested in 'Justice' or 'Just-us'?"

We all regularly need this reminder. As adults, we all still need heroes.

All of us are in business to make money, but we are in this profession to help clients. Heroes such as Tom Strong can remind us that our goal should be to help our clients and, as a consequence, earn a living. Tragedies, such as Dickie Scruggs, remind us of the consequences of excess and wandering be­yond the boundaries.

One other thought. I doubt that many of us set out in life to be a hero, but we are heroes to the young person we counsel about career, the charity we fund, the community work we do, the client we help. Not only do you need heroes to inspire you, you are "that guy" (or gal) for others.

You are all smart, talented and capable people. You finished high school, entered college, graduated at the top of your class, beat out the other 10 applicants for your spot in law school, survived L1, then graduated and passed the bar. You are probably the one percent in your community. But with brains come responsibilities. Your neighbors look to you to set an example and to inspire them. If you hold something dear, then others will aspire to the same.

So, the question becomes: What kind of hero will you be to those watching you?

Someone wiser than me once said, “What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others lives on long after we depart.” I have no idea where Mr. Koch is now, or if he is still among the living. But his lessons, inspiration, and example still resonate in me nearly 50 years later. I am a better person for him having been in the world. May our clients and those we meet all be able to say the same for each of us.

As always, feel free to write at Pat@Starkelawoffices.com or call at 816-229-9111.