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Former New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo exhorted young lawyers to recognize and embrace the social significance of the practice of law. Speaking on “The Soul of the Profession” at a breakfast meeting of summer associates and young lawyers co-sponsored by The New York Law Journal at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York Thursday, Cuomo recalled the beginnings of what he called his love affair with “Our Lady of the Law” during his clerkship at the Court of Appeals more than 40 years ago. “I came to understand that just participating in the system — was enough to make me feel I was doing something important with my life,” Cuomo said. “Each of us, every day, has the ability to do all that is possible for us to make things better. And lawyers have more of that ability than most.” Cuomo, now a partner at Willkie Farr & Gallagher, characterized the widespread disenchantment of young lawyers with the profession as a reaction to the multitude of career options they are faced with and to an onslaught of coverage provided by a skeptical press. “Many of us have ingested this information, much of it with a negative bias, without much interpretation or perspective,” he said. “So the electronic information age has produced a powerful, knowledgeable, uniquely capacitated generation that is difficult to satisfy psychically.” Cuomo gently mocked the lavish treatment of summer associates (“a nearly frantic New Age courting of legal talent”) and the profusion of perks — such as casual dress — that large firms have employed in an attempt to stem associate attrition. “Frankly, it looks like spring break in Fort Lauderdale,”he said. “And they’re still peeling stuff off.” But he noted that since the disillusionment of young practitioners seems much more to be a quest for “spirituality” and “meaningfulness,” perks are likely to be little more than a superficial treatment. “Things like that will keep a certain number of people in, but not enough to deal with the problem fundamentally,”Cuomo said. Instead, he urged lawyers to remember that their work for clients of all stripes contributes to the improvement of society. “Even today at Willkie, representing a successful and ultimately wealthy client in the establishment of a new business can be a chance to create more jobs for people who need them,” Cuomo said. “Whatever anyone else thought, or thinks, the work I was doing, and the work I’m doing now — even when it’s tedious, even when it’s frustrating, even when it’s exhausting, even when it seems to fail — is necessary, useful, good and a real contribution to society.” And Cuomo called on lawyers to become more active in the political process. “You’re not as involved as you should be,” he told the audience of about 400 lawyers and lawyers-to-be. “The political argument is undernourished.” At the end of his remarks, the lamp on the lectern came in contact with his notes and began to send up plumes of smoke, giving the former Governor a chance to display his well-known gift for the ad-lib. “This is how I want the story to go,” Cuomo concluded. “We’ve had a lot of speakers, but this guy was so good, his words burst into flames.”

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