Did you ever wish you had a road map for success? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a set of life instructions that would lead you to be a better person and a better lawyer?
At the recent 2016 New York State Bar admission ceremony in Rochester, the new lawyers, their families and everyone there including the appellate court judges received just such a set of “life’s rules” from keynote speaker, the Hon. Lawrence Vilardo, who recently became a federal judge in the Western District of New York.
The life lessons he spoke of really hit home because I knew his parents, Lawrence and Dolores Vilardo, and knew of their core values based in love of family, respect, integrity and work ethic.
I asked for permission to share the speech here because lawyers young and old will benefit from these words of wisdom. Of course he agreed, but humbly made it clear that he learned the “Vilardo Family” life commandments from his parents.
Below are edited excerpts from that speech that will help not just new lawyers, but us all, make a difference in the world.
Treat everyone with the same respect. Every one of us is entitled to the same respect as everyone else. I started as a law clerk for one of our nation’s great lawyers, judges and legal minds, Judge Irving Goldberg of Texas. But more important than that, he was a very good man. I saw him interact with the chief justice of the United States and with the crew of workers who cleaned our office. Judge Goldberg treated everyone the same. One gains respect as a lawyer and a judge not by showing how much you know and making others feel small in the process but by the exact opposite, by being humble and showing respect for everyone.
When you borrow something, give it back in better shape. Whenever we stayed with friends or family out of town, my mother would make sure that the rooms were cleaned a little more neatly than when we arrived. My parents always showed their gratitude. When you use a form pleading that has been drafted by someone else, don’t just go through the motions of filling in the blanks. Proofread that notice of motion and fix the typos. Add a question to that deposition script. Show your gratitude. Make yourself a better lawyer in the process.
Share what you have. The same way you receive form pleadings from another lawyer, you should share your work with others. But that is just the start. Those of us who have been blessed with the opportunity to practice law owe a debt to society. Repay that debt by representing those who cannot afford legal services; by volunteering to serve on boards of charitable or educational institutions; by donating your time and dollars to serve those who are less fortunate. I would rather have my tombstone read “He left the world a better place” than “He had a lot of stuff.”
Don’t be a bully. This can be especially tough for young lawyers. When you have the better of the argument, you want to rub your opponent’s nose in it. Don’t do it. My dad taught me a life lesson that applies to life in the courtroom: “Always leave the other guy a graceful way to exit.” Never try to embarrass an opponent. Even when fighting hard for a client, never lose sight of the dignity of the opponent and the client on the other side.
Don’t ever start a fight. But if someone else starts one, don’t back down. At trial and during depositions, tempers can get short. But that does not mean that you should back down when your adversary throws the first verbal blow or even when a judge tries to push you around. Instead, you should keep your wits about you and fight back without resorting to the same tactics. If you are in a deposition and the witness is avoiding answering, try this: “Mr. Witness, it’s my job to ask questions and get answers. I’ve tried to do that respectfully, and I will continue to do it respectfully. But I am going to ask the questions, some of them hard questions, and I am going to get answers. If that means we have to stay here hours longer, and if I have to get the court to help me get the answers to my questions, we’ll do that, too. But your objections or insults are not going to stop me from asking the questions and getting the answers on my client’s behalf.”
You’d be surprised at how that will disarm your opponents. And the judge will be impressed with your efforts to resolve it reasonably.
Never take more than you give. There is a verse from the song “The Circle of Life” from the movie “The Lion King”: “Some say eat or be eaten; some say live and let live. But all are agreed, as they join the stampede: You should never take more than you give.” The lesson is simple: To keep the stampede going, all have to give at least as much as they take. Otherwise, the stampede is diminished and eventually falls apart. Substitute “legal profession” or, even better, “world” for “stampede” and you get the point.
If it has your name on it, try to make it perfect. My first job was working at the Vilardo Printing shop. When we would print anything, it not only had to look straight, it had to be straight. In my dad’s shop, you had to use a brass rule, not a lead rule, to measure. That’s because lead is a soft metal and your fingernail might make a slight indentation and the measurement would be off. Of course, no one’s eye could have noticed any difference. Regardless, my dad wanted it to be perfect; he wanted people to associate our name with only the highest quality. Every letter you write, every pleading you sign has your name on it. Make sure it is perfect or at least as close to perfect as you can get it. Proofread everything, check and doublecheck your citations. Don’t ever send a letter, sign a pleading or file a brief unless you are proud of it. Remember, that’s your name on it.
Reputations are hard to earn but easy to lose. Be scrupulously honest in everything you do. Never make a factual statement in a brief unless you are sure it is true. It will take many years to earn a reputation for honesty and integrity, but it will take only one lie or one false statement to destroy that reputation. There are lots of jokes about dishonest lawyers. Don’t be the punch line for one of them.
Your character is what you do when no one is watching. Temptations are everywhere for all of us. No one will ever know that you worked only six-tenths of an hour on that letter and you billed 0.7. And I can do a passable cross-examination without preparing. Who will ever know? You will. Even when you’re alone in your office, do what you would do if the whole world were watching. Do it for yourself.
The golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Do the kind of work for your partners that you will want an associate to do for you someday. Work as hard for every client as you would want a lawyer to work for your mother. Treat opposing counsel as you want them to treat you. Do that and you will have a long and rewarding career in a fabulous profession in the greatest legal system in the world.
The entire version of the speech can be found online at https://www.lotempiolaw.com/vilardo-speech/.