Aiming for the Moon

Professionalism starts with who we understand ourselves to be

By Frank Stevenson

Editor’s Note: Frank Stevenson is the 2019 recipient of the Morris Harrell Professionalism Award, which honors the “attorney who best exemplifies, by their conduct and character, truly professional traits who others seek to emulate and who all in the bar admire.” Stevenson was recognized by the Dallas Bar Association and the Texas Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism at an award ceremony on November 15 at the Belo Mansion. The following is his speech as prepared for delivery.

President Geisler, thank you for that most generous introduction.
Members of the Dallas Bar and the State Bar, and honored guests.
Allow me a few “thank you’s.”

First, to Peter Vogel who 26 years ago placed his faith in a guy he barely knew from a pile of lumber to start a program during Peter’s year as Dallas Bar president. It was the Summer Law Intern Program, and I was that pile of lumber. That program continues to this day and has placed over 600 rising DISD seniors—many of them from profoundly disadvantaged backgrounds—in summer jobs in law offices where members of this association hire them, mentor them, and assure them they can be anything they want to be. A young man I interviewed for one of our Hughes Diversity Scholarships stated bluntly: “There’s no way I’d be here without the Summer Law Program.” He’s now a Dallas lawyer, practicing at one of our city’s finest firms.

Next, to Justice Douglas Lang, who entrusted me to write the curriculum for his celebrated Transition to Law Practice Program and then to implement it my year as Dallas Bar president. Members of this association mentor and teach recent law school graduates to enable them to confidently and successfully commence their legal careers. That program has now been taken statewide.

Next, to Michelle Hunter, who as executive director of the State Bar of Texas believed that during my year as president, Texas lawyers could establish a legal incubator that trained lawyers to meet the everyday legal needs of everyday Americans. Texas lawyers signed up for the incubator—five times as many as we had room for—because they believed that, through the use of technology and instructed business skills, they could serve the least, the last, and the lost while making a living for themselves and for their families—that our untested incubator could match their hearts for service with heads for success. And the result? There are over 60 legal incubators in the United States and overseas. In two-and-a-half years, your Texas Bar built the largest legal incubator in the world. And as a result of President Geisler’s inspired leadership, this Dallas Bar now has a legal incubator of its own.

Here’s my point: Our Dallas and Texas bars do many fine things, but by any standard I care about, none more admirable than these programs and dozens of similar ones I could name. That’s because when our bars do these things, they are in the business of believing in people— believing in both their members to address a need, and believing in the people who bear that need. There is no business more estimable than the believing-in-people business. And we may never have more needed institutions committed to the believing-in-people business than right now.

Next, a sincere thank you to the bar leaders and bar association staff with whom I’ve had the privilege to work and become fast friends. The State Bar’s executive director, Trey Apffel, along with his colleague Ray Cantu, are here from Austin, former State Bar Presidents Harriet Miers and Tom Vick, Professor Bryan Garner and Karolyne Cheng, former DBA President John Estes, Texas Bar Foundation Chair Tino Ramirez, and many other leading Texas lawyers. I wish I could name everyone because each of you contributed profoundly to my development as a lawyer and as a person. And I am grateful.

Also, sincerest thanks to my clients here today—NTTA, Trinity Metro, O’Boyle Properties, Bird Consulting, and others. You have each given me the most precious thing you could—namely, your confidence.

Next, to my law firm: 41 years ago this month I decided at the urging of my father to take one last flyback and interview for a summer clerkship at Locke Purnell Boren Laney & Neely. I’m now working at my fifth different law firm and I’ve never had to budge a single inch! Sincerest thanks to my colleagues at Locke Lord. My highest professional attainment is to have been your colleague and friend for the last four decades, and you’ve been over-generous in both.

And finally, and most importantly, to my family. To my three intermittently adult children, represented here today by my fine son, John. And of course to my wife of 39 years, Helen, who completes me and provides purpose for everything I do. Absolutely everything I do.

Here’s what I think the Morris Harrell Professionalism Award is all about, what it means, why it matters.

Shortly after John F. Kennedy announced our nation’s resolve to place a man on the moon by the close of that decade, he toured the NASA space center for the first time. Seeing a janitor carrying a broom, President Kennedy left his official entourage and walked over and asked what he was doing. The janitor responded: “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

It’s an instructive anecdote for what it says about self-understanding. In 1962 when JFK took that tour, NASA must have employed a hundred janitors. And in the strictest sense, all of them did exactly the same thing. But in any sense that matters, they weren’t doing remotely the same thing. The difference was not in what they were doing, but in what they understood themselves as doing. Some were pushing brooms; some were putting men on the moon.

You and I are presented that exact same choice every single day, whatever our line of work. We have the option to aim low in our self-understanding of what it is we do and who we are. Or we have the option to aim high. How high? Well, how ’bout the moon?

For the last 100 years, the trajectory of legal ethics in America has tilted toward pushing brooms.

The first nationally promulgated ethical standards were the Canons of Ethics adopted by the American Bar Association in 1908. The canons were strictly aspirational, ennobling, and infused with a strong moral component of what a lawyer should do, in distinction to what a lawyer must do.

In 1969, the ABA replaced the canons with the Code of Professional Responsibility. The code retained aspirational elements, just like the 1908 canons, but added Disciplinary Rules— minimum standards and the absolute lowest level of conduct to which an attorney could stoop without being subject to discipline.

In 1983, the ABA adopted the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which remain in effect today. The model rules dropped all aspirational features, leaving only black-letter minimum rules and explanatory comments.

Thus American legal ethics had completed a 180-degree shift—starting out as entirely aspirational and moral, progressing to add hard-and-fast minimum standards to the aspirational elements, and concluding with solely minimum standards with no aspirational elements at all. It seems to me that lawyers who understand themselves and what they do as countenancing conduct compliant with just the minimum standard, just short of discipline, are pushing brooms.

Fortunately, state, metro, and specialty bar associations came to the realization that the absence of any appeal to the profession’s higher virtues in the ABA Rules was contributing to an erosion of civility among lawyers and a decline in the overall dignity of the profession. With the aspirational and moral elements of legal ethics having been wrung out like water from a chamois, these bar associations shifted their attention to a wholly different and higher standard.

A standard called “professionalism.”

These associations began formulating their own professionalism statements about how lawyers should comport themselves, and not simply how they must.

Roughly 150 different professionalism statements have been issued, but none more significant than the Texas Lawyer’s Creed: A Mandate for Professionalism, which was promulgated exactly 30 years ago, almost to this very day.

The first thing the creed requires its subscribers to profess is not how they should act or even what they believe, but who they are—“I am a lawyer” is its opening line. Only after that does the creed propose how a Texas lawyer ought to behave.

Beginning with a profession of identity, not of conduct, suggests that professionalism itself is in large part a matter of who we understand ourselves to be and what we understand ourselves to be engaged in. So, just like the NASA janitor, it’s an issue of self-understanding.

When I consider the women and men who’ve previously received today’s award, I am struck by how they all embody this same self-understanding. How proud they all are or were to be Texas lawyers. How they understood themselves as engaged in an enterprise larger than themselves—not simply winning some case, not simply closing some deal, but advancing the rule of law.

And larger than themselves in how they perceived the consequences of unprofessional behavior. How the duty they each felt to demonstrate the high virtues of our profession grew from their abiding belief that unworthy conduct would diminish not only them, but others. Not only here, but elsewhere. Not only now, but later. And finally how it was only this bond—this interdependence of all lawyers, this inexorable in-it-all-together—that makes this Dallas Bar Association an actual association of attorneys, and not just an amalgam of appetites.

I once admired these lawyers and lawyers like them for their consistency—for invariably knowing and doing the right thing. But I slowly realized that consistency is too small a thing, and of too little use to me or anyone else. Instead of their consistency, I now admire them for their constancy, which is a far bigger thing and more useful.

Consistency is merely what McDonalds achieves with its hamburgers. Constancy is what the firmament achieves with its stars. And stars are used to steer by. And that’s precisely how I’ve used these stars.

Judge Lynn, Judge Ferguson, Jim Coleman, Harriet Miers, and the first recipient of this award and its eponym, my former law partner, Morris Harrell. And my list goes on and on.

If we think people like this come around for no reason, we are deluded and most to be pitied. They instead are set into our lives as intentionally as a jeweler sets a glowing gem. And they are every bit as precious.

Let there be no mistake, today’s award is largely unearned. Which is why I am so grateful to President Geisler to receive it. For it requires me to devote the remainder of my career trying to earn this recognition shared by and even named for my mentors—the stars by which I’ve steered my entire professional life. And by doing so, perhaps achieve the distinction of becoming a star myself for others.

Thank you.

FRANK E. STEVENSON is a partner in Locke Lord LLP and the vice president of the Western States Bar Conference. He served as the 2016-2017 State Bar of Texas president.

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