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Bar News - December 14, 2012

Opinion: Giving Back: No Experience Required

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from remarks by Hon. James P. Bassett, who took office as associate justice of the NH Supreme Court earlier this year. He spoke to new admittees of the NH Bar on Nov. 7, 2012, during a swearing-in ceremony at the federal courthouse in Concord.

Like you, I have a new position and new responsibilities, having been sworn in as a member of the Supreme Court only last July. Before I came to the Supreme Court, I had been in private practice in Concord for more than 27 years. I was fortunate to have had great mentors as I started out as a lawyer. I benefited tremendously – both personally and professionally – from their knowledge and experience. As I gained more experience in practice over the years, I tried to build the same relationships with younger lawyers. Whether you are headed to practice in a big or small law firm, in public service, or especially if you are going out on your own, I urge you to find a mentor to whom you can turn for advice and perspective on your professional life. It is an honor for a lawyer to be asked to serve in these roles. Please find an experienced lawyer whose life and practice inspire you and ask for advice. I can tell you, they want to be asked. Your willingness to ask questions about your new profession is a strength, not a weakness.

Because of your legal education, and by virtue of taking this oath today, you have become an officer of the court. You have assumed an important role in our judicial system and a responsibility to your clients. In addition, and very importantly, your membership in our profession also puts you in a unique position to contribute to the well-being of your communities and our state. Giving back through public service, and by being a volunteer, is not just an opportunity to have an impact in the communities where we live and where we raise our families. It is, I believe, a part of our professional responsibility as lawyers and as citizens.

You may believe that, as brand new lawyers, you don’t have enough experience to make a valuable contribution. However, you have been trained to be problem-solvers, and with that background, you can help build and run nonprofits, work in state or local government, or strengthen the cultural life of the state. There are many nonprofits in New Hampshire that would benefit not only from your enthusiasm and energy, but also from your expertise as a lawyer. Keep in mind that our state – particularly in these difficult economic times – draws its strength from citizens who volunteer their skills and knowledge to help their communities and their government. You can make a difference to your fellow citizens; please seize that opportunity.

From my own experience, I know about the enormous satisfaction that comes from getting involved in state and local government and with nonprofits. Like many other lawyers in our state, including many who are now on the bench, and many in this courtroom this morning, I have served in state and local government, on appointed commissions and on nonprofit boards. I was a selectman in my hometown for many years, and I was chairman of the planning board. No billable hours in the short term, true. But in the long run, the payback is immeasurable. It is not only the right thing to do, but if you take the long view, it is also important to the development of a thriving practice. In short, volunteer. You have much to offer – you, your career and your community will be the better for it.

Finally, be mindful that a great measure of what people make of you over time will be shaped by what opposing counsel and opposing parties say about you. Inevitably, in the intense crucible of our adversary system, the best – and sometimes the worst – of you will come out. But when the smoke clears, long after the results of any particular case are long forgotten, what will matter will be what others think of you as a lawyer and as a person. You will be measured based on the decisions you made in the heat of battle and for your judgments, not on whether your client won or lost. Your character and judgment are what matter in the long run.

Our state is small, and while the legal community has grown since I became a lawyer, it too is still a small world. People – other lawyers, court staff, judges – will quickly get to know you. Today, you begin to build your reputation in the legal community. That means the choices that you make now are important. Your reputation, as a lawyer, as a colleague, as a coworker, and as a volunteer in your community, will follow you from the courtroom, from your law office, to your town hall and the soccer field and to Main Street.

Your legal education has prepared you well to solve problems, to make informed decisions, and to have a profound impact on your community and your state. It is an exciting prospect: You have a career of 30 to 40 years ahead of you. You have the opportunity to accomplish so much and to make a tremendous difference. I am envious.

Congratulations for what you have already accomplished and for what we know you will achieve in the future. We look forward to seeing you in our courtrooms, watching you ably and zealously represent your clients, watching you contribute to our bar and to our system of justice, and watching you make a difference in our communities throughout the state.

Good luck.

If you are in doubt about the status of any meeting, please call the Bar Center at 603-224-6942 before you head out.

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