Chief Justice Paul Wilson addresses Missouri lawyers
Vol. 78, No. 6 / November - December 2022
Paul C. Wilson, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, delivered this address during the opening luncheon of the joint Annual Meeting of The Missouri Bar and the Judicial Conference of Missouri Sept. 15, 2022, in Springfield.
Thank you, President McCubbin. Good afternoon! How nice it is to see all of you in person again.
Last year, I delivered this speech online in a video watched around the world by literally tens of viewers. But, I’ve got to say, I miss those days! A coat and tie on top … and sweat pants on the bottom, several hundred retakes, in a room with only me, a couple of bored technicians, and Betsy AuBuchon looking at her watch and signaling to speed it up.
Well, those days are gone now, and we are back to doing this live. That means I have to get this in one take, and you don’t get to turn me off … or put on the cat filter your kids or grandkids loaded on your phone. I’m sure we’ll do just fine.
A philosopher in ancient Greece once said, “There is nothing permanent except change.” Twenty-five centuries later, the 1976 version of “A Star Is Born” put it this way: “Nothing changes but the changes.” They were both right.
Society is changing, and the rate of that change is increasing every day. And make no mistake, change is stressful. As much as we like to pretend otherwise, the practice of law is not exempt from these changes or the stress they bring.
Being a lawyer or a judge has never been easy. We have all the stresses everyone else has, plus we take on the stresses of our clients and constituents. It’s what we do, and it’s always been hard.
But now it’s getting harder. Those normal stresses that everyone has … they’re on the rise. Running a law practice or managing a courtroom and staff … they’re more stressful now than ever before. And so are the stresses we take on from those we serve.
And that’s not all. We’re living in a society that increasingly does not trust institutions or professionals of any stripe. This loss of confidence hurts our profession and our judicial system, but right now I want you to realize how much it takes a toll on us individually.
All of that is to say, if you think the water is rising, if sometimes you feel like you can’t touch the bottom even standing on your tippy toes, you’re not wrong.
It can be hard to know what stress is doing to you, and even harder to admit it, but it’s much easier to see the danger signs in others. Suppose I asked you to put your heads down and raise a hand if you know a lawyer who has a substance abuse problem, or who is so overwhelmed they just can’t seem to take care of themselves or their clients. Suppose I asked you to raise your hand if you know someone who was driven out of our profession by this stress or, worse, whose circumstances became so unbearable they ended their life to end their pain. How many hands would be up? Too many.
Recent studies confirm what we already know. Young lawyers today are more likely to report levels of stress they believe are unsustainable … and they’re more likely than ever to leave the profession because of it. Twenty percent of lawyers in one study screened positive for harmful levels of alcohol consumption … and do you think those lawyers were overreporting their drinking? More than one in every 10 lawyers surveyed had considered suicide … and 1% had attempted it. One percent. Think about that.
I know this is grim. No one wants to talk about these issues, but look around. This is what we get if you we don’t talk about it, if we continue to pretend that anxiety and depression are things that only happen to somebody else, to the ones who “just can’t hack it.”
There are some real challenges facing our profession today, and I’m going to talk about them in a minute, but if we don’t start now – and I mean right now – taking better care of ourselves and each other, we simply won’t be in any shape to take on those other challenges. If you love and value what we do and what we represent, you have to love those who do it. We have to take better care of ourselves and each other.
You have a right to expect your legal career will be a meaningful, lifelong expression of your commitment to serving others and the rule of law. You have a right to expect this profession will give you a sense of fulfillment that will sustain you in the difficult times. But, for too many of us, for too much of the time, neither of these things is true. The stress of this work too often robs us of the joy it should bring. And that stress, for too many of us, poses serious risks to our physical and mental health.
So, all of us need to start working on this problem with some intentionality. We’re lucky to have Anne Chambers, who leads the Missouri Lawyers’ Assistance Program, or MOLAP. This afternoon, she’ll be talking about how we can recognize the warning signs of burnout and other mental health issues; how to spot these red flags in our colleagues and in ourselves. More important, she’ll talk about how to make sure we all can get the support we need, when we need it.
But there’s something very simple that we all can do, starting right now. The practice of law used to be a community. Increasingly, however, we’re chained to our desks and we just don’t see each other very much or for very long. Then the pandemic came along and isolation became a way of life. And the simple truth is, the more isolated we are from each other the harder it is to take care of each other.
We have to build back the legal community. Get to know and care for as many of your colleagues as you can. Get engaged with The Missouri Bar; join a committee. If you have a local bar association, go! If you don’t have one, start one. Find a lawyer you don’t know and ask them to lunch. Make the health and strength of this profession your personal business.
And if you ever realize you’re having trouble managing the stresses of life and this profession, please know that you’re not alone. You have 30,000 colleagues around this state, and I promise you every one of us has been where you are at one time or another. Reach out. If you prefer anonymity, call MOLAP anytime, any day. It doesn't matter whether you’re in crisis or you just need someone to talk to. It doesn’t matter who helps you; it matters only that you get the help you need.
If you had a client with a problem you weren’t sure how to handle, you wouldn’t hesitate to ask another lawyer. I'm asking you to please learn to care as much for yourself as you do for your clients. Otherwise, there’s simply no way we’ll be able to serve all those who depend on us. Like they tell you when you board an airliner, secure your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others. Or, I like the way my grandmother used to put it: “You cannot pour from an empty cup.”
If you’re wondering why I’m so adamant about taking better care of ourselves and each other, the answer is simple. The legal profession and the judicial system are headed into real trouble right now, and we’re going to have to be at our very best to fend off the challenges we face.
I don’t have to tell you things are rough right now. Every single one of us is a public servant. Whether you’re a prosecutor, a public defender, a private practitioner, or a judge, we all serve society. But the society we serve is more divided, more distrustful, more fearful, and more angry than it has been for a long, long time.
In the past, one of the reasons society survived rough times like these was the stability of its institutions. And I believe the most important of all those institutions is the judicial system and the rule of law.
Picture it this way: Our society is an ocean, and the public are all the boats that sail on it. Some boats are fancy, others barely seaworthy, but everyone sails the same sea. When the storms come, everyone gets tossed about. The poorest boats suffer soonest and they suffer the most, but when a big storm rages – and I'm telling you, a big one is brewing right now – everybody feels it.
In this picture, courts and the rule of law are the all-important harbors when seas get rough; the place where truth matters, where reason has its day, and where questions of fact are decided by evidence and not simply by who can shout the loudest and the longest. We don’t determine the weather, and we don’t get to say where people should sail or even whether they should go to sea at all. That’s not our job. We are simply here when they need us, when there are disputes that have to be resolved, and those resolutions have to matter, be final, and have the force and effect of law.
In the past, courts were able to serve society so well in stormy times because people trusted them. Courts worked because people believed they worked. The rule of law mattered because people believed it mattered.
But that confidence is waning. Right now, we’re balanced on a knife’s edge and there is a real risk the public’s trust, its confidence, will slip away. And if it goes, if we let it go, there will be no safe harbor when society really needs one.
In the past decade, public confidence in the courts and the rule of law has eroded faster than ever before. Last year, for the first time ever, more Americans said they had little or no faith in the courts’ ability to provide equal justice for all than those who did. The last three words of the Pledge of Allegiance – justice for all – and the public no longer believes in our ability to deliver on that promise. If that doesn’t make you a little mad – and more than a little frightened – it should.
Why is this happening? The answer is that most people don’t have much idea what we do or how we do it, and much of what they think they know is wrong. Whose fault is that? Ours. Period.
If we want the public to know what we know – and they have to, for the rule of law to survive and for the judicial system to work – then it’s up to us to teach them. We have to educate the public about their justice system, and we have to do it one service club, one classroom, one individual at a time. This has to be our highest priority because, if we don’t turn this around, it just won’t matter what our other priorities are.
But understand that, even if the public listens to us, they also watch what we do and how we do it. If lawyers act like truth matters, all the time, then society is far more likely to believe their justice system cares about truth as well. If lawyers treat everyone (including each other) fairly and with respect, all the time, society is far more likely to believe their justice system does the same.
A thousand civic education programs cannot undo the damage done by a single lawyer who brazenly misuses the judicial system or asserts facts they know are untrue. Everything any of us does, everything we say, and the way we do what we do and say what we say, shapes the public’s perception of our entire profession and the system we serve. We cannot afford right now to give anything less than our best, all the time.
But now there’s a new threat to the public’s trust and confidence – a bigger one – and it’s far more dangerous than a lack of civic education. The public square is increasingly filled with those – including, to my great shame, more than a few lawyers – who are willing to lie to the public, to pour gas on their lack of trust, simply to gain a little short-term popularity.
When a bully pushes you, you have to push back. When someone attacks the rule of law and the judicial system on grounds you know are false, you have got to say something. The public might not believe everything we say, at least not at first, but I know you people and you’re a pretty persuasive bunch when you get going … so get going! Don’t give up this battle over the public’s trust and confidence without a fight … because I promise you it’s a fight worth fighting and it’s a fight we cannot afford to lose.
When I say that we have to defend the rule of law and the justice system, that these institutions are worth fighting for, people sometimes hear the word “institution” and think of some great ivory tower – cold, distant, and unchanging. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our justice system is a profoundly human enterprise, with all the magnificent qualities – and all the foibles – that make us human. We simply wouldn’t want it any other way.
We’re not distant. We are literally in the heart of town squares across this state. And our institutions are anything but unchanging. One of the most fundamental duties lawyers and judges have is to strive continually to improve the law and the delivery of justice in our courts. When we do that, and – more importantly, when the public sees us do that – it enhances the rule of law and the public’s trust and confidence in what we do.
Right now, we are working to expand drug courts, veterans courts, and other problem-solving courts to help people rebuild their lives and their families. We are working to find and eliminate systemic and implicit bias, to build a judiciary as diverse as the people we serve, and to resolve civil cases faster and less expensively. And we are making courts more accessible and more transparent by increasing the use of virtual proceedings and by making public court documents accessible to anyone, anytime over the web.
These steps and many more are not just aimed at making courts better – they are aimed at increasing the public’s trust and confidence in those courts because that trust and confidence is essential if we are to preserve our justice system and the rule of law. It is essential if we are to be here when the public needs us, especially when the seas get rough.
Institutions don’t survive because they’re institutions. They survive because the people who serve in them are committed to making them survive. For example, the Ukrainian constitution, like ours in Missouri, requires courts to remain open and accessible. Right this minute, Ukrainian judges, lawyers, and court staff are doing all they can – including taking up arms – to keep their courts open and ensure access to justice … even in the middle of a war. They are willing to fight to defend the rule of law because they know how much they stand to lose if they don’t.
But history, as it usually does, provides cautionary tales as well. In 1930s Germany, the judiciary failed in its duty. They were told to render decisions more in keeping with the prevailing will, rather than the law ... and they did. So, bit by bit, German judges and German lawyers followed the mob down into the worst hell anyone has ever imagined. It took a decade and tens of millions of lives to pick up the pieces when an independent judiciary stopped being independent … and stopped being judicial. I hope and pray we are never tested like the lawyers and judges in Germany or Ukraine but, if we are, which path will we choose?
Everyone in this room knows the line from Henry VI, Part 2, where Dick the Butcher said: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” That line has spawned a million lawyer jokes since Shakespeare wrote it 430 years ago. But it also conveys a serious message about the role of lawyers and courts in preserving liberty and the rule of law.
But what worries me about that quote is that it dramatically exaggerates what needs to happen to do away with liberty and the rule of law. No one needs to “kill all the lawyers.” All that needs to happen is for the lawyers and judges to do nothing.
I don’t think that will happen. We have some work ahead of us, that’s true, but I know for a fact that the people in this room, and all our colleagues around the state, are up to the task.
What makes me so confident about the future are the examples we have to follow. We are privileged to work in a profession that has more than its share of heroes – many of whom are in this room right now. People who, day-by-day, have the heart and the courage to do the little things right even when no one’s looking, and to do the big things right even when the whole world is watching.
I want to focus on two of these heroes before I go. The first is Alan Pratzel, who’s been our chief disciplinary counsel since … when, Alan, the Eisenhower administration? All he’s done is devote his life to protecting the public and the integrity of our profession by teaching generations of lawyers to know and follow the rules of professional conduct. Alan is retiring this fall and I hope he knows how much better our profession is for his having played such an important role in it. Friends, please help me recognize Alan Pratzel now.
Finally, I want to talk about a person who – if you have any doubt about the future of the profession or the vital work we all do – just spend about 10 seconds in his presence and you’ll leave energized and enthusiastic. There are some lawyers whose extraordinary skill and intellect are so inspiring they make the rest of us want to be better lawyers. And there are some people whose extraordinary character and zest for life are so inspiring they make the rest of us want to be better people. But I’ve never met anyone who combined those two traits the way Marcy Graham does. Please help me recognize him now.
I called Marcy a couple of weeks ago and explained the Court has an award that it gives each year to lawyers who have rendered extraordinary service to the bar and the judiciary. I told him that the Court had decided to re-name this award in his honor, and that the very first Maurice B. Graham Award would be presented this morning to John Grimm, the outgoing president of The Missouri Bar.
So, I was on the phone with Marcy and I tried to tell him how much I admired him and how long I had watched what he did and respected how he did it. And I got a little choked up. Then I felt silly because I thought there’s no way he knows how great an influence he’s had on me and my life as a lawyer.
That’s because Marcy Graham is a great person, and great people never think they’re great; they never know how many people they’ve touched or how deeply. But much more important than being a great person, Marcy Graham is a good person. He has spent his life caring about this profession and every single lawyer in it, including every one of you, whether you knew it or not.
So, as we leave here today, I’d like all of us to be a little more like Alan and Marcy. We can all be better teachers and better people. And, if we aren’t sure how to go about it, we need only look at their example.
Because this is my last annual meeting as chief justice, I want to take this opportunity to tell you what a privilege it is to serve on this Court and how much I love and respect the colleagues with whom I share that privilege. Next year, we will have a new chief and two of our friends will move on. After all, change is the only constant. But the justice system and the rule of law will go on – they have to – not because of any particular judge or court, but because of all of you and all that you do.
Never lose sight of how incredibly important you are and how important what you do is. Think how incredible the chance you have to serve others is, and how much responsibility comes with that opportunity.
Take care of yourselves, take care of each other, and together we can take care of the profession we love.
Smooth sailing to all of you.
Supreme Court of Missouri Chief Justice Paul Wilson speaks to lawyers at the Annual Meeting of The Missouri Bar and the Judicial Conference of Missouri. Photo by Shelby Kardell
Alan Pratzel (center) accepts a Spurgeon Smithson Award from Missouri Bar Foundation President Lynn Ann Vogel and 2021-22 Missouri Bar President John Grimm. Photo by Shelby Kardell
Supreme Court of Missouri Chief Justice Paul Wilson holds the inaugural Maurice B. Graham Award, which was presented to 2021-22 Missouri Bar President John Grimm (left) and named to honor Maurice B. Graham (seated). Photo by Shelby Kardell