Building a Worthy Legacy

Buck Lewis
Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC
Memphis, Tennessee

“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” –John Bunyan

Few embody the charity behind this quote like Buck Lewis. George T. Lewis, more affectionately referred to as “Buck,” is what many consider an institution at the University of Tennessee College of Law. Recipient of the prestigious William Reece Smith Jr. Special Services to Pro Bono Award, Buck has catapulted the University of Tennessee as a promulgator of strong pro bono services. Through his firm, Baker Donelson, Buck has facilitated the development of the pro bono legal services website, ABA Free Legal Answers, with the American Bar Association to serve a wider range of the underrepresented. As a friend of UT Law, Buck has served as the Larry D. Wilks Practitioner-in-Residence for the Institute of Professional Leadership and as one of the professors for the Leading as Lawyers course taught to second and third-year law students. The following excerpt is the closing words made by Buck to the 2018 Leading as Lawyers class.

“Thirty-nine years ago, I sat where you sit.

Five years ago, I spoke to the class of 2016 upon the occasion of their entrance into this College of Law. I told them then as I tell you now that Tennessee is a special state. The geographic and cultural diversity of Tennessee has produced an eclectic list of leaders in all walks of life: Gregg Allman, Kenny Chesney, Elvis Presley, Andrew Jackson, Howard Baker, Al Gore, Tim McCarver, Wilma Rudolph, and Pat Summit, to name a few. My favorite place in Tennessee is the Torchbearer on this campus. I hope you will come to cherish the Volunteer Creed at the foot of the Torchbearer, ‘One that beareth a torch shadows oneself to give light to others.’

This College of Law has produced scores of judges, deans, bar presidents, managing partners, general counsels, and elected officials. You will join their ranks. I know you will because I have watched you and listened to you, and read your reflections and talked with you about your lives. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you are not special. You are. Forty percent of law school applicants, never, ever get into law school anywhere. That’s how special you are.

We have talked during our journey together about whether it mattered that we were lawyers. Does it carry special duties? Special obligations? Special status? Special opportunities? Did it matter, for example, that Atticus Finch was a lawyer instead of the owner of a dry goods store when an attempt was made on the life of his children?

For me, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. For Dean Blaze, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. For Ben Adams, Ursula Bailey, Dwight Tarwater and Neil McBride, the answer to that question is a resounding yes. For Justice Lee, the answer is a resounding yes. For Professor Hardin, the answer is a resounding yes. Imagine for a moment if the opportunity to practice law was taken from you. Our young class alumni, Willie Santana, Taylor Askew, and Karissa Range are learning just how much it matters to be a lawyer
Someday soon, you will be asked to take the lawyer’s oath of office. In Tennessee, you will solemnly swear to support the Constitution – not just avoid violating it, but actually support it. And you will solemnly swear to “truly and honestly” develop yourself in the practice of our profession, to the “best of your skills and abilities.” On the day you are sworn in, your conduct will begin to be governed by Supreme Court Rule 8, our Rules of Professional Conduct. The Preamble of those Rules outlines our values, aspirations, and duties. Among these duties are ‘public service’ as part of a ‘common calling to promote justice and the public good.’ The day you become a lawyer you will become ‘a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.’ You will assume the duty to ‘further the public understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system.’ You will assume the duty under section 7 of the preamble to ‘devote professional time and resources and to use civic influence to ensure equal access to our system of justice.’

You see, you are all in the process of becoming something different than you were before. And, you are about to shoulder the responsibility for the rule of law, access to justice, and a fair and impartial judiciary, the core values of our profession. These duties and values, ladies and gentlemen, were the duties and values I embraced 39 years ago, and the duties and values you will be called upon to embrace very soon in your young lives.

You have already begun to build your legacies. You are all leaders – right now. You have to believe in yourselves. You have to believe you are worthy, but never entitled. Life won’t always be a series of green lights, but what matters is to always be moving in the right direction. You have the passion and perseverance (the “grit”) to create a beautiful legacy with your lives. But, you must make the journey of self-discovery to marry your passions with your work.

With this series of only twelve sessions together, Dean Blaze and I arrogantly aspired to do nothing less than change your professional lives.
1) With the article on ordinary leadership and the video on everyday leadership, we have tried to persuade you that the time for you to lead is now.
2) With Bill Lockett, we wanted to burn into your memories how easy it is to wreck your professional lives, and how critical it is to seek help when you get into trouble.
3) With the materials on access to justice and the time with Neil McBride, we wanted to sensitize you to the fact that pro bono is a core value of our profession, something you agree to do when you take your oath, and an activity that will feed your soul and build your legacy for the rest of your lives.
4) With your strategic plans, we hope to start you on the path of purposefully and thoughtfully credentialing yourselves, so that opportunities to lead will fall into your laps.
5) With Justice Sharon Lee, we sought to illustrate how the sky is the limit, and that if you have enough grit, and aren’t afraid to fail, you can serve at the highest level of our profession, no matter where you start or where you are from.
6) Finally, we wanted to make sure you understand how important leaving a legacy will become. The best leaders are purposeful about the legacies they leave. You cannot waste time on unworthy activities.

In every leadership class or leadership seminar I teach, I use the exercise of discussing which uses of our time are ‘worthy’ and which are ‘not worthy.’ I do so because time really is our most precious resource. This exercise didn’t come out of a leadership book or an article in a magazine; it came out of an accidental and unexpected life experience of mine. So, this is my personal reflection paper for you.

In the fall of 2002, my mom was diagnosed with colon cancer. She had surgery in September of that year. One-hundred days later, I was diagnosed with colon cancer as well. One beautiful Saturday morning in January of 2003, we were sitting together in Mom’s back yard. It was one of those days when the warm gulf air had moved up the Mississippi river valley, and made Memphis a very nice place to be in January. At that point, she was starting chemotherapy and I was scheduled for surgery the following week to remove my malignant polyps.
We began to talk quite by accident about the activities that we had found worthwhile and the activities that we wished we had passed up. For example, she thought that she had spent too much time on certain political campaigns and the Memphis social scene. But, she was very glad she had spent so many years teaching ballet to young ladies at Evergreen Presbyterian Church. I said that I wished that I had spent less time chasing billable hours, but I told her that I was really enjoying the new pro bono clinic I was doing in downtown Memphis for HIV-positive clients. As I look back, my conversation that day with her planted the seed for my interest in teaching.

Our conversation regarding what was a worthy use of our time and what was not so worthy went on for hours. It was, quite simply, one of the most profound conversations I have ever had with her or with anyone else. I would urge you to have your own version of that conversation with a parent or spouse or best friend. It will bring your life into sharper focus. And, when new opportunities arise, if you put the decision about whether to participate through the worthy/not worthy crucible, you will usually make the right decision.

I lost my mother in September of that year to the damnable cancer. Thank goodness I had this conversation with her before it was too late. The lessons she taught me that afternoon have stayed with me now for all these years.
The final chapter of my personal reflection for you is the story of my two elevator rides. When I had my cancer surgery in early 2003, I had never had major surgery before. They tested me every which way but loose the day before the surgery. They came in, put me on a gurney, I said my goodbyes to my wife, and they started wheeling me down the hallway. I had never experienced a more profound sense of loneliness than when I left that hospital room. Next, I arrived at what seemed to me to be the biggest elevator door I had ever seen. When the elevator came, it was deeper and wider and taller than any I had ever seen. It was made of stainless steel and it was chilled to a balmy 50 degrees. The elevator descended all the way down below ground level into the bowels of the hospital where the operating suites are located.

During that long, cold elevator ride, all I could think about was how disgusted I was with myself. I was disgusted because I hadn’t spent nearly enough time doing things that were worthy. I hadn’t focused much at all on what kind of legacy I would leave. Too many of my pursuits were selfish, and not enough were externally focused on helping others. The surgery went well and I have been cancer-free for 16 years, however, the lesson of that first elevator has never left me.

Now for the second elevator ride. When I was in law school I developed an episodic cardiac arrhythmia. By 2017, the episodes had become more frequent and cardiac ablation surgery had become more reliably successful. So it was the same drill for this procedure as it was in 2003. They tested me as much as humanly possible the day before. They put me on a gurney and rolled me down a lonely corridor. I arrived at what seemed like the same elevator door. When the doors opened, the elevator was just as deep, just as tall, just as steely, and just as cold.

But this time the elevator ride was different. It was different because in the intervening 15 years between the first elevator ride and the second, I had immersed myself in the cause of equal access to justice and joined the wonderful, compassionate access to justice community that we have in Tennessee. I had become involved in the Red Cross, and Dean Blaze had given me the opportunity to teach this wonderful leadership class. This time, as I rode down the elevator, I had a feeling of contentment because I had spent far more of my time on worthy pursuits which were externally focused.

The point of this little story, of course, is that we will all have to take our own elevator ride someday. It might be sooner. It might be later. It may be that we’ll have plenty of notice. It may be that we’ll have no notice. But there will come a point in all of our lives where we will reflect upon how we have spent our time and what kind of legacy we are leaving behind. Don’t do what I did. Don’t wait until you are diagnosed with cancer or there is some other dramatic event that wakes you up and reminds you to pay close attention to the legacy that you are leaving. You have the benefit of learning the importance of focusing on worthy activities and leaving a proud legacy while you are still young. Take advantage of the opportunity.

Ten years ago, when the late Senator John McCain won the New Hampshire primary, he said in his speech that night to his supporters,

‘My friends, I learned long ago that serving only oneself is a petty and unsatisfying ambition. But serve a cause greater than self-interest and you will know a happiness far more sublime than the fleeting pleasure of fame and fortune.”

The late Senator McCain found his passion. Serving his country was his passion. The key to achieving that sublime happiness for each of you is to find your passion.

You are young. You may think that you are invincible right now, but you are not. Just as now is the time to lead, now is also the time to start being purposeful about leaving your legacy. As Brad Meltzer told us in his TED talk, we will all have a legacy, like it or not. We will all have an obituary, like it or not. The question is whether we will live a purposeful life, or just wash back and forth aimlessly in the surf of daily events, wasting your precious time on unworthy or even destructive distractions.

You all have the tools you need to be a leader. You have the intellect. You have the education. And, now you understand how to be purposeful about the legacy you leave. I suspect all of you have people in your life who have helped you get this far. Build a proud legacy for your family and dear friends. Build a proud legacy for your university and, for your law school. Be part of the proud tradition of Tennessee graduates who have made profound differences in their communities, their states, and our nation. Build a proud legacy so you can experience what Senator McCain called the “sublime” happiness of serving a cause greater than yourself. Bring a sense of urgency to seeking out opportunities to lead and to serve and savor every single one of the opportunities that this profession will deliver to your doorstep. Live your lives every day so that no matter how long you live, in the end you will be well pleased with your leadership, your service, and your legacy.

And, please stay in touch because Doug and I are proud to consider you part of our legacies now.”
-George T. Lewis (“Buck”), October 3rd, 2018.

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