Don’t Doubt Your Impact
If there were ever a time when the power and importance of the legal
profession is in doubt, July is not the month. For in July, we
commemorate the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the
foundation for this new and independent nation, 241 years after its
Of the 56 signers of the declaration, 25 were lawyers. In fact, lawyers outnumbered merchants and plantation owners, the two next most-common jobs held by the signers. The most famous of the lawyers who took part in the declaration’s creation are certainly John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Those are the names most easily plucked from the recesses of our brains. But who were the others? There’s Samuel Chase, William Ellery, Roger Sherman, Oliver Wolcott, and many more.
But among all those scribbled names, there exists probably one of the most influential lawyers of that time, and it’s someone you may not recognize today. In the third row, several signatures below John Hancock, sits the elegant scrawl of George Wythe.
By all accounts, Wythe profoundly inspired Jefferson, the principal author of the declaration. Wythe, who was about 50 at the time of the signing, was Jefferson’s law teacher and mentor. In fact, several biographies list Wythe as the first known law professor in the country. He was a respected legal mind and a teacher in 1761 when he was appointed to the board of visitors of the College of William & Mary. It was there that he taught many of the nation’s first college-educated lawyers, including Jefferson and future U.S. President James Monroe, as well as future senators, judges, and eventual Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall.
State Bar President Tom Vick partakes in the reading of the
Declaration of Independence in Parker County in 2016.
It was in 1779, three years after the declaration’s adoption, that Jefferson, as governor of Virginia, appointed Wythe to the first chair of law at a college. Today, George Wythe is the Wythe in the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William & Mary.
Why would any of this be important, other than to tell you about an interesting lawyer whose name you may file away alongside Adams and Jefferson? To have impact and influence, to change the course of history, you don’t need to be the loudest person in the room or even the one most remembered. You can be that teacher or that mentor. You can be that thinker, that mediator, or that volunteer.
Or you can be Robert Fickman, a Houston lawyer and member of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. Robb loves the Fourth of July and in years past, much to the chagrin of his children, required they read portions of the declaration before the barbecue was served so that they would have a better appreciation of the holiday. In 2010 that passion grew to a reading of the entire declaration on the courthouse steps in Harris County. His continued efforts led to readings on the courthouse steps of all 254 counties in Texas by members of the TCDLA or their surrogates in 2016. I was privileged to be one of those readers last year. It is an incredibly moving experience to be a part of or witness. Robb reminds us all, “The declaration was a historic first step in what remains an ongoing fight for liberty; a fight we as defense lawyers continue.”
Never doubt the importance of the work done by all the great lawyers who came before you or your ability to make an impact today.
President, State Bar of Texas