What’s Your Story?

By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director

When someone asks us what we do as lawyers and legal professionals, what story do we tell them? Do we frame the answer in the loftier ideals of our profession and the good we do in the world, or in the day-to-day grind that the practice of law sometimes can feel like?

That question was the driving force behind the selection of this year’s theme song at the CBA and CBF’s 21st Annual Pro Bono and Public Service Awards Luncheon last week, The Story by Brandi Carlile.

At the Luncheon, we honored seven outstanding lawyers from all corners of our profession who each have great stories to tell about the difference they are making in our community. And those stories brought to mind the old parable about the woman who happens upon three men who are cutting stones, and asks them what they are doing:

The first replied, “I am making a living.”

The second kept on hammering while he said, “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county.”

The third looked up with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “I am building a cathedral.”

Three people are doing the same work yet are thinking about it and describing it to others in three very different ways.

Yes, it is just a parable, but it really resonates in the legal profession. Too often when those of us in law are asked about what we are doing, we default to something along the lines of that first stonecutter’s answer. While many times we are just joking with these kinds of responses (e.g., “I’m living the dream!”), our answers too often reflect how we really feel about what we are doing in law.

And that is a real shame. While it may not always feel like it, the truth is that we all are part of something much bigger, a proverbial cathedral of justice we all are helping to build every day.

The foundation for that cathedral starts in the work we do each day, wherever we are in the profession—the many ways we protect rights, uphold the rule of law, help move the economy forward, and improve our communities. As one of our honorees at last year’s Luncheon and our 2019 Investing in Justice Campaign Chair Linda Coberly aptly put it, “we help people.”

If it feels sometimes like that doesn’t make a difference, that we’re just moving around money, try telling that to someone living in or trying to do business in a country where they can’t count on rights being protected or contracts being enforced. The Rule of Law is literally a dream to them, and their economies and overall societies suffer as a result.

Being like the second stonecutter in our day-to-day work in the law lays the foundation for our proverbial cathedral of justice, and we should never lose sight of that. But it is only the start. Where the cathedral really comes together is in the unique and powerful platform our profession gives us to make our world a better place, in two distinct and complementary ways.

The dedicated individuals honored at this year’s Luncheon, like the many great lawyers honored at the event in prior years, are another good reminder that wherever we are in the profession, we individually can make a real difference. Whether we are in private practice or in-house at a corporation, in academia or public service, well established in our career or just getting started, we can make a formidable impact on our own through the law.

And we can make an even greater impact by joining forces with our colleagues and telling the collective story about what our legal community accomplishes together. Chicago’s legal community is rightly considered a national model and leader on access to justice. That is reflected in the work of the many outstanding pro bono and legal aid organizations addressing key legal issues or helping specific groups of people in need.

And it is reflected in the acclaimed work of the CBF, which is made possible by Chicago’s legal community pulling together to tackle the broader systemic challenges to access to justice, making an impact that none of us could on our own.

The bottom line is that all of us in the profession have some great stories to tell. We know that these stories don’t just write themselves though. They are a product of the many dedicated lawyers, legal professionals and judges who are doing great work every day.

The truth is, we’ve still got a long way to go to make sure our cathedral of justice is as powerful and strong as it can be. We know it needs more work right now—we can do away with a lot of outdated practices and unnecessarily complex terminology and have great potential to benefit from new technologies and modernized systems, and we of course need more resources so everyone can get through the doors when they need the protection of the law. And it will always take an ongoing commitment to keep the system strong for the future.

But when that cathedral is working the way it is designed, it is a beautiful thing and something we can and should be proud to be a part of. We’ve all got a great story to tell about the work we are doing to build that cathedral, and the next time someone asks what we do in law, let’s tell that story.