Does It Really Matter?

By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director

As we honored seven outstanding lawyers and judges at this year’s CBA/CBF Pro Bono and Public Service Awards Luncheon, we continued a recent tradition by kicking things off with a song to help set the theme for the event.

This year’s choice, America by Simon & Garfunkel, was a late pivot in the plan, a classic and one that felt very appropriate for the times we find ourselves in now.

If you are familiar with the song, you will remember the protagonists embark on a long road trip and soon learn that they are just two of countless others who have all come to look for America and chase the American dream. The more perfect union we all are striving for that lives up to our nation’s ideals. 

That song was released more than 50 years ago in 1968, and yet lately, it often feels like we’re farther away from reaching those ideals than we have been in quite some time. I imagine most of us have felt that way at some point in recent months; it really can feel like our country is losing its way and make you wonder whether the work we are doing matters.

I’m a guy whose beer glass is always half full, and several friends and colleagues have called me the most optimistic person they know, and even I’ve felt that way at times. That empty and aching feeling in the song, except we do know why–we only have to turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper, or look at our phones to see that fundamental challenges abound at the same time our country appears more divided than ever.

But those moments of questioning whether this work really matters have been fleeting, because what we are doing could not be more important than it is times like this. No, we won’t be able to fix everything that ails our country by ensuring that our justice system is fair and accessible for all, but we will never be able to fix those bigger problems if we don’t get the justice part right.

This model of concentric circles illustrated below–circles of concern, influence, and control—is a good way to look at what’s happening today and how we in the legal community can best do our part to make it better. It is one of many bits of wisdom I have learned from Drew Suss of Truebridge Partners, who has generously undertaken the daunting pro bono challenge of serving as my coach over the past year.

Starting with that outer circle of concern, as noted above there are no shortage of things to worry about in our country on any given day. We can and should do our part in addressing those concerns by being informed citizens, voting, advocating, and speaking out. The reality, however, is our ability to change them on our own is much more limited and we should limit the time and mental energy we devote to these issues accordingly.

Beyond those broader concerns we all have in our “outer circles,” there is much more we can do when we get to that next circle of influence. And all of us in the legal community share a common bond of having some unique and powerful influence we can bring to the issue of access to justice. We have a unique knowledge, experience, and yes, influence to make a difference in this cause that others do not, and if we don’t grab that torch, who else will?

Lastly, there is the circle of control. That one is the narrowest but most critical, and really comes down to deciding how we ourselves are going to respond and how we best use our distinct influence. That is the one thing we can control.

If any of us have any doubt that we can make a big difference as individuals, this year’s Luncheon honorees should put that to rest. They showed us firsthand that wherever we are in the legal community, we have control of how we are going to use our unique influence to advance access to justice and make a powerful difference. I encourage you to take a few minutes to read more about them and the wide-ranging impact they are making in our community.

Our influence is supercharged when we come together to tackle the larger systemic issues around access to justice, through the CBF in the Chicago area and through similar legal community efforts around the country, that make an impact that none of us could on our own.

The bottom line is that whatever we may be feeling about what is happening in the world around us, there is in fact much we can and must do individually and together to use our special influence as lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals to move us closer to the fundamental American promise of justice for all.