President's Page: The optimist sees opportunity
Vol. 76, No. 5 / Sept. - Oct. 2020
John Gunn practices with Gunn Law Firm PC in St. Louis.
When I made the decision to run for vice-president of The Missouri Bar a few years ago, I did so with a decent understanding that one issue or another would present an obstacle to whatever I hoped to accomplish as president. A past president of our bar advised that I be agile in preparations for my presidential year so that adjustments could be made. As my law partner, mentor, friend, and father, I’m getting a little tired of acknowledging how right he is.
You may have heard that we, as a country, vote Nov. 3. Ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was finalized only 100 years ago last month, granting women – roughly one-half of the otherwise eligible population – the right to vote. The fact that this occurred so recently in the context of American society is jarring. However, we continue to fight for that most fundamental right of a healthy republic: to vote – to have a voice in how we are governed and by whom. This is a right that was always worth fighting for, and that has never changed. Any presidential election cycle carries unique weight with respect to how we view ourselves as a country. I suspect many of you feel that weight is amplified this year.
We have a unique set of skills to assist with the exercise of the right to vote by those eligible. I encourage each of you to find a way to support and enable voting this November: phone banks, poll workers, election supervisors, election observers, voter registration assistance, driving voters to the polls, etc. There is no lack of opportunity to facilitate this feature unique to the American experiment and foundational to its continued success. Please do what you can to protect voting and facilitate participation in the process.
The world is simply a different place than it was two summers ago. COVID-19 changed the trajectory of all our lives; race-relation issues in our country reclaimed the attention they deserve; and political division is about as severe as has been experienced in my lifetime. The Missouri Bar adjusted and responded wonderfully, in my view, with the creation of a COVID-19 Response Task Force, the convening of our Special Committee on Lawyers of Color, and our continued efforts to better the lives of our members through a focus on wellness. These are all efforts our Immediate Past President Tom Bender instituted and managed mindfully, for which we should all be grateful. I know I am.
These endeavors will continue. The COVID-19 Response Task Force, made up of prominent members of our bench and bar who have magnanimously given enormous swaths of their time, will go on to provide research, insight, and tools to assist us in navigating the pandemic. While largely unseen, the work of this task force is indispensable to the continued administration of justice by our courts until our judiciary can fully and safely resume in-person operations.
Our Special Committee on Lawyers of Color is consistent with our shared hope that we do see color and appreciate and embrace our differences. We owe it to our profession – and society – to understand unique circumstances and experiences so that we can all be better and do better. As lawyers, we are trained to anticipate arguments so that we might better articulate a response. This is the opposite of empathy. While this tendency is often helpful to us professionally, it is of little use outside an adversarial context. Part of the charge of this special committee is to shift our emphasis to listening. It is important that each constituency and individual member of the bar has an opportunity to be heard. The Missouri Bar is listening and will continue to seek out the active participation of members who might otherwise be less inclined to be involved.
Before he was elected president of the United States, John Adams got it right when he embraced his duty to the law and defended British soldiers following the Boston Massacre. He accepted the ridicule and disdain that often comes with doing the right thing and defending those who are without the wherewithal to defend themselves. The right thing, in this regard, was incorporated into the very fabric of our republic in the form of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, guaranteeing the assistance of counsel in criminal matters. In the case of Strickland v. Washington, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered the majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court, clarifying that the assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment must be “effective.” It has been consistently reported that the Missouri Public Defender System ranks second to last – 49th out of the 50 states – with respect to funding deficiencies. Lawyers who have dedicated their lives to fulfilling the promise made by the framers in the Sixth Amendment are being called before the Supreme Court of Missouri on ethics charges because they simply cannot keep up with the volume of work. Something must change. The Missouri State Public Defender system has for years now been accepting the assistance of outside counsel to help with the volume of cases assigned to it. We will be highlighting those efforts, and our Board of Governors will be hearing consistently from the State Public Defender and other stakeholders within the criminal justice system with the hope that we might continue to protect the efficacy of all citizens’ right to counsel, as well as the lawyers who have committed their careers to the same.
The legal profession is not well, and may not ever have been.
A study commissioned by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association found lawyers are three times more likely to experience anxiety/depression and two times more likely to be hazardous consumers of alcohol. Our heads have been buried in the sand for too long.
It is the very nature of the practice of law that we are uniquely exposed to difficult situations. As humans, we absorb the emotions experienced by our clients, but our duty of confidentiality restricts us from discussing difficult professional experiences with those with whom we are closest. Our duties isolate us, leaving us largely to work through difficult circumstances on our own.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of an increased focus on the wellness of lawyers. We are suffering – and all too frequently dying – due in a significant degree to a culture where happiness and fulfillment are defined by conventional notions of success.
As lawyers, we are not trained to be empathetic. It just hasn’t been considered an element of good lawyering. But it is an absolute necessity to being a good person, which must come first. It is not enough that we simply broaden the discussion around lawyer well-being, it is time to do the work.
Supreme Court of Missouri Chief Justice George Draper and I will be convening a group of stakeholders in the legal community for a roundtable discussion of issues impacting the well-being of those in our community, and to consider how those issues might be remedied. The roundtable will inform the creation and charge of a task force, which will further identify where help can be provided and develop programs to address the identified need. This is a big undertaking and may require the undoing of decades of culture.
Our world is changing, and that may be an understatement. Change can be difficult. We must be available for each other in ways that may not feel normal. Doing so enables us to better serve our clients and society.
I am energized to be assuming the role of president of The Missouri Bar at this moment in history, but I will certainly need the help of every member of our bar to accomplish these goals.
Be good to each other. And let us all be willing to put in the work – not only to improve the lives of our clients and communities – but to improve ourselves and the support of one another.