The Key to Being a Great Lawyer
The Law Teacher, Volume 8, number 1 (Fall 2000), p. 5-6.
About the Author
Bryan Thomas Pugh teaches at Florida State University College of Law, 425 W. Jefferson St., Tallahassee, FL 32306-1601; (850) 644-5081; fax (850) 644-0576; bpugh [at] law.fsu.edu
"Yeah, I can get you 35 used keys. That shouldn't be a problem," the voice on the phone said. "You're sure it's no trouble?" I replied. "No trouble at all. I'll have them in a bag for you tomorrow at the front desk of the Key Bank." With that, the last piece of my last lecture to my very first class fell into place.
I had named my inaugural class "The Great Lawyers." On the first day of class, I had them say aloud the phrase "I am a great lawyer" and had asked them to repeat the phrase three times, emphasizing a different word each time. "I am a great lawyer". "I am a GREAT lawyer." "I am a great LAWYER." I then had them introduce themselves to those sitting around them with the phrase, "Hi. My name is . . . and I am a Great Lawyer!" Once the introductions had been made, I told them I worked only with great lawyers and I was glad to see that I was in a room full of nothing but great lawyers.
That was nine months ago. Now, it was the last week of the spring semester and time for me to let go of this, my first class of students. I wanted to send them forth with something special. I wanted to thank them for their hard work, help them recognize how far they had come since that first day, and encourage them as they headed into final exams, summer jobs, and their second year. The inspiration for that final class came from my grandmother.
Three months before she died at 85, and only one week before she was diagnosed with multiple inoperable cancers, my grandmother gave two workshops at an international women educators' conference in South Carolina. First as a teacher of young people, then as a teacher of teachers, my grandmother had devoted her entire life to educating others. On this particular occasion, facing a room full of the best and the brightest teachers from more than 15 countries, my grandmother began with a story that spoke of every individual's ability to serve and contribute to the improvement of others. Since she was a meticulous note taker and a fastidious filer, I was able to find and use her notes from that day's conference as the basis for her eulogy delivered three months later. In the margin of her lecture for that day, she had written a note to herself. "Next time, make sure to give everyone a key to take with them." I decided to use her presentation from that conference, and her margin notes, as my swan song to the "Great Lawyers."
Upon arriving to class that final day, each student was handed one of the secondhand keys I had obtained from the Key Bank the day before. I asked the students to clear their desks of everything but the key and to hold the key in their upturned palms. I then asked them to concentrate on their key while they listened to my story:
After arriving at his newly assigned church, a young minister and his wife met with the building custodian to take a look around the church and review the daily procedures for the church and the surrounding buildings. At the end of the meeting the custodian held out a key ring with three keys on it. "Well, sir, I suppose these are now yours," he said. "What are these?" asked the minister. "These are the keys to the church," the custodian replied. "This key is for the sanctuary, and this key is for the church office building." "And the third key? "Well, sir," said the gray-haired man, "Nobody really knows what that key is for. I got it from my predecessor, who told me that he had gotten it from the fellow he replaced. I'm just passing it on to you." As the minister attempted to remove the key from the key ring to return it, the custodian said, "I think you ought to just keep it on the ring and take it with you. You never know when you might need it."
Later, as the minister and his wife sat around the kitchen table that evening, their thoughts turned to the mysterious third key. He pulled the key ring out of his pocket and placed the three keys on the table. The minister thought for a moment. "You know, the custodian was right. This key should stay on this key chain. Maybe this third key is the key that can open up a closed heart or, maybe, unlock the potential in a young person's life." "Yes, that's right," said the minister's wife, picking up on her husband's thought. "Maybe this key could free a grieving widow from hopelessness or rescue the parent of a dying child from guilt. This key should definitely remain on the key chain . . . as a reminder," the minister concluded. "Just in case."
At this point, I left the prepared text of my grandmother's presentation, moved out from behind the lectern, and asked my students to look up at me. I held my key out to them and continued. "What can you do with your key? What does your key open? Your key could be the key that frees a battered wife and her children from a life-threatening or abusive relationship. Your key could be the key releasing an innocent man from a soul-withering existence in prison. Your key could be the key that unlocks a single mother's dream of owning her own business enabling her to make a better life for herself and her family. It could help a disabled person gain access to a place he or she has never been or free someone with a devastating injury from staggering medical bills. Your key could be the key that seals the deal to bring much needed jobs and, more important, hope to an underprivileged community."
"No matter what grades you make in this class, no matter your class rank or GPA, no matter what accolades or honors you achieve or don't achieve while you are here, you still have a key. The things you have learned in this class and the things you will continue to learn while here in law school make your key very powerful and make you very special. You have the key in your hands. How will you use your key? What will you do with YOUR key?"
At that point I thanked them for their patience and their hard work over the past semester and the past year. I wished them luck on exams and good luck in their second and third years of law school. Then I left them with, "You are all Great Lawyers and you will always be Great Lawyers. Now take your key and go do great things."