I've been luckier than I deserve in my legal career to attract the mentorship of some great lawyers. John R. Williams on New Haven broke me in, teaching me all he knew about civil rights litigation and criminal defense. Gerry Spence shared generously of his insight into stories and the psyche. And F. Lee Bailey has taught me a healthy awe of common facts. But I am feeling as though it is time to pick up my bed and walk; to see how far I can go on my own two feet.
I've just returned from a long weekend in Maine, where Bailey was once again generous beyond my merit with his time and talent. We spent a good deal of time trying to work the kinks out of a criminal case I find troubling. Bailey was as Bailey always has been: incisive in an almost brutal manner. He pushes hard and is candid with his disdain for the artless question or lazy response. Bailey's self-confidence is brash; his mind is like a meat cleaver, slamming away at loose joints.
Spence is quite different. He displays no confidence. Whereas Bailey pushes, Spence beckons. My sense is that if on the dock at Heaven's gate, Bailey would spit into the eye of St. Peter demanding the front of the line. Spence, by contrast, would hang back, eyes down cast and tear-filled. Spence has as great an appreciation of facts, but he works harder than anyone I know to root facts into a pattern that summons a helping response.
I'd like to see a trial pitting Spence versus Bailey. Their styles could not be more different. Indeed, so different are they that I cannot imagine them as co-counsel in a case. It is more than a competition of alpha males for the position of top dog. They simply radiate a different energy: Bailey is an intellectual centrifuge, pushing all boundaries to their limit; Spence is centripetal, drawing all to himself. I resisted Spence's pull to the point of alienating him, a fact I accept with regret.
The differences between the two men are reflected in their paradoxical surroundings. Bailey's office is a place of clean lines, with everything in its place. Orchids decorated the place this past weekend; simple elegance standing watch as a mind went about the brutal work of open heart surgery without the use of anesthesia. Spence seems most comfortable on his ranch, a place of elemental and therefore brutal natural energy, yet his is a gentle intensity. Each man seems to surround himself with outward trappings holding into relief their defining characteristic.
On the long drive back from Maine, Bailey's sharp words rang in my ears. I spent long hours considering what makes Bailey a great lawyer in a manner altogether different than the form of Spence's excellence. I catalogued what I have learned from each and worried as I always do that I cannot measure up the standards of the men I admire, even as I fear them.
But then I realized the I had been given a great gift, the gift of their time freely given. As I drove I tried simply to accept these gifts without worrying about whether I could use them well, or even at all. Both men are legends in American law, and both are aging. I am lucky to have gotten to know each. But now the challenge is to take what they have taught and make something of it. It makes me look forward to the next trial: these men have survived much and done much, so much more than I have or most likely ever will.
I admire great trial lawyers. There are so few of them any more. Amid the clatter of lawyers pushing and shoving to show what they know, few have something to teach. That was clear to me as I drove, as clear as the road ahead.