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We’re about to pack our oldest daughter, Sarah, off to college. She’s 18 all of a sudden and full of that incredible combination of teenage confidence and angst that could light a major city for several years. And she’s been asking some pretty intimate questions. Not about anything intimate that way. Intimate in tougher ways. She has to think about what she’s going to major in, and she’s been asking how I decided to become a lawyer. As it happens, I have a very definite answer for this. I can even point to a specific evening in February of my junior year in college when everything clicked into place. I worked as a projectionist to earn beer and pizza money and had just finished showing an incredibly pompous and dark documentary called “Hospital” to about 80 of the campus literati. “The Producers” it wasn’t, and it gave me a lot of time to think. It had been a particularly unsettling period. My draft number had come back at 76, low enough to create uncertainty about my future but not low enough to make me think about doing anything rash. My initial plan to become “a scientist” — picture the cartoon character Dexter of Dexter’s Laboratory grown up and wearing bell bottoms, considering Woodstock being not that long in the past when this happened — had long since capsized on the reef of higher mathematics. That being my 8 a.m. science classes, to which I developed a serious allergy, and the need to attend labs that cut into my Frisbee time. I didn’t have a girlfriend or strong geographic ties drawing me in any particular direction. I did have words. That semester I had signed up for what the college was pleased to call Political Science 352, “Constitutional Law,” taught by a young assistant prof named Gary Jacobson. I liked the class for its own sake. “G.J.,” as we called him, had a pretty mellow style and even let one guy in the class who mostly worked as a disc jockey at the campus radio station, pass off one important dissenting opinion with the immortal comment, “Well, I think he was telling the majority that their opinion sucked.” In my first preview of the Socratic method, professor Jacobson simply asked, “How did it suck?” Our academic universe thereupon righted itself, and we went back to the business at hand. I’m not sure we needed a teacher in Poli Sci 352, though. Its grist was excerpts from the basic decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and the words on the pages we read. We had John Marshall; Louis Brandeis; the two Justices John Marshall Harlan; Oliver Wendell Holmes of the pregnant aphorism; Robert Jackson, who learned law as an apprentice and how to write directly from heaven; Felix Frankfurter; Earl Warren; and a host of others to guide us. It was heady, beguiling and enough to make me want to see where this kind of stuff came from. All of this came to mind not long ago when I was in court to argue a motion in a little case I’ve been helping with. The argument took about 10 minutes, even with both sides obeying that immutable law of lawyering, “Lawyers never use one word when four will do.” The conversation that followed would have taken as long as we’d cared to spend on it. Each of us — the judge, my opponent and I — without really emphasizing the point, told stories about people we’d worked with, been in front of or occasionally worked against. Mostly they were comic, but invariably they focused on what we’d learned from each person or situation. And suddenly I had the same kind of feeling I’d had all the way back in Poli Sci 352. Each of us had been guided by someone else in our profession — often by getting our respective clocks cleaned — but the impact had been personal and immediate, profound and usually satisfying. So my answer to you, Sarah, is almost the same today as it would have that night as I rewound the last reel of that dreadful movie. That night in February I already had been captured by the majesty of what I had read in class, and that was enough to give me a direction. But if the majesty of a Marbury v. Madison gave me something to look up to in the most idealistic sense, it has been the lawyer stories I’ve heard and told over the years, where they mostly come from and what they represent, that has kept me coming back to work and satisfied — even on those crummy days we all have. We too often forget that even in these impersonal days of thousands upon thousands of attorneys, all of us can point to people who made a real difference in our professional lives. The influence may not have been quite as deep as what created a Marbury v. Madison or Brown v. Board of Education, but there aren’t many other professions around where so many of us can recount positive influences from others in the same line of work. Ours is still a profession that relies upon and treasures the idea of looking up to someone. That’s something we ought to quietly celebrate, preserve and protect, because it remains unique. And as long as we try to pass along the idea that there are people and principles worth looking up to, we pass along the foundation of the Marburys and Browns to come. How many gastroenterologists can say that? Tom Alleman, a shareholder in the environmental practice group of Winstead Sechrest & Minick in Dallas, is grateful to more lawyers and judges than he could possibly list. He thanks them all and hopes he’s worthy of what they gave him.

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