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So, my son Ross is about to graduate from college this spring, and we’ve had many engaging conversations about what he should do next. Astrophysicist and point guard for the Celtics are both out; journalist, inner-city teacher, and South Beach bartender are still on the table. So is law school, and Ross asked for my views about the ingredients for success in my chosen field. I ticked off the obvious ones quickly: First, you have to work very hard; second, you can never get complacent (Buddhism and law both teach us that all is impermanent, so read the friggin’ advance sheets); and third, always do the right thing, both because it’s the right thing and because you never know when a stupid shortcut or unwise risk will come back to bite you very, very hard. A less-obvious ingredient for success is that the best lawyers, both in and out of court, almost always bring with them a rich and wide variety of experiences outside of legal practice. My position on this has relevance for my son, in that I believe it is best to put some space between college and law school. Many of the young lawyers who are most valuable in my practice are the ones who have tasted a bit of life. The well-worn groove of Ivy League college, Ivy League law school, judicial clerkship, highly sought-after associate position in the big firm is no doubt a valuable path. The young lawyers who follow that road work hard and write good briefs. But the results are not always so great when I send them into central lockup to interview a reluctant witness or to go fight with an arrogant government lawyer or even to interview the client. Common sense and the common touch are not always byproducts of a tour on law review. Neither is a willingness to take on “The Man” necessarily required for success on that well-worn path. In my youth, I took a solitary trip from one end of the Amazon to the other, worked in a state institution for the severely retarded and tried to organize the workers there, worked on a kibbutz on the old Israel-Jordan border, washed dishes on a Greek tourist ship, and went in search of Andr� Malraux in Paris — activities that I recall with satisfaction, amusement, and pleasure. I can’t directly tie any brilliant argument or blistering cross-examination to any of these adventures, but I will always believe they made me a more complete person and, therefore, a better lawyer. The out-of-law experiences don’t have to be successes to be valuable. I’m not the first to observe that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. It is no doubt true that coping with adversity and bouncing back from defeats are essential parts of every lawyer’s life. I was tossed out of Cornell for a bit for choosing adventure over academics, was incarcerated in Algiers (briefly), and never found Malraux. And in my legal life I have received verdicts that have made me very, very unhappy. A thicker skin, patience, and empathy — qualities I have needed and have called upon in my practice — are outgrowths of those experiences. The out-of-law experiences should continue deep into a legal career. I know and worry about many “successful” partners who are stuck in narrow practices that may or may not have a shelf life, or who are clinging to a fickle client, with involuntary retirement the next stop. Government stints, teaching, pro bono cases, interesting sabbaticals, and forays into new practice areas all add breadth, depth, new contacts, and new experiences to a law practice. With the full support of my firm, Steptoe & Johnson, I prosecuted Gen. Richard Secord in the Iran-Contra investigation, served as bipartisan Senate counsel for the 1992 “October surprise” investigation, and was a special prosecutor in a major RICO case in Alaska. Each of these experiences opened important new doors that helped my private practice expand. I was an adjunct professor teaching a variety of subjects at Georgetown University Law Center for many years. Teaching gave me insights into what many young lawyers were thinking (“Work at Legal Aid? Are you crazy? I’m $150,000 in the hole!”) and, more importantly, for the first time since law school it gave me the chance to think about certain legal issues in an abstract, unhurried way. Again with the support of my firm, I started See Forever, a foundation whose purpose is to assist young people caught up in the juvenile-justice system. With the help of others, many years later we are now on our way to our third charter school and are seeking to take over education responsibilities at Oak Hill, the juvenile-justice facility for the District of Columbia. See Forever’s goal has always been to do right by every kid in and out of court. See Forever helps to revitalize and re-energize my commitment to see to it that justice is done for every one of my clients, no matter how small or big the case. That is, at bottom, why I am a lawyer. So, back to my son. I think law will happen, but not right away. He caught the bug last summer when he acted as my investigator, paralegal, law clerk, press guy, and summer associate in our successful defense of Lamar Owens, the Navy quarterback who was charged with rape. On the last day of the trial, when we were on our way to court, Ross said to me, “Dad, you’re not bad — but if you want me to close, I will.” Right now, teaching at a See Forever charter school and bartending on South Beach are neck and neck. Either way, he will have good stories for those boring joint defense meetings.
Reid Weingarten is a partner in the Washington office of Steptoe & Johnson and is part of the firm’s white-collar criminal defense group.

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