Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JANUARY 2011

Law & Life

If I Were Young Again:
Reflections on the First 30 Years
By Kelly L. Anderson

As I was leaving my office about 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 17, 2009, I discovered on my desk an anniversary card that had been left by one of my legal assistants. Inside the card I read these handwritten words: “Congratulations on 30 years.” For a few seconds I mused on what this meant, since September 17 is not my wedding anniversary, and I had not been married 30 years. And then it hit me — exactly 30 years before, on Sept. 17, 1979, I had been admitted as an attorney to practice law in the courts of Oregon. Until I read my legal assistant’s thoughtful card, I had been unaware of my “anniversary,” though I had remembered in the months leading up to that day that I would soon be celebrating the 30-year marker.

As I have since reflected over my years of practicing law, I am grateful that I did at least some things right. I have consistently worked hard — very hard — and I have been blessed beyond measure by extraordinarily capable legal assistants who are talented, loyal and truly gifted, and who have worked for me for many years. And I have always loved practicing law. I continue to feel great satisfaction in the creative process of putting cases together. The years have been very financially and intellectually rewarding.

But I have also reflected a lot over the lost opportunities of my career and what I would do differently if I were young again. I am therefore writing to the young attorneys of the bar, those with less than five years experience, and anyone else who might benefit from one who has lived long enough to comb grey hair.

If I were young again I would read more
I am happy to say that over the last 30 years I have voraciously read hundreds of books, mostly biographies and autobiographies, a number of histories and some classic fiction, and I have been greatly enriched by having done so. Until recently, though, I had read precious little legal literature. Yes, I kept up reasonably well with the advance sheets, nibbled at some articles in the Oregon State Bar Bulletin and read a few articles in Trial Magazine (a publication of the American Association for Justice, formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America). But what I didn’t do — and now wish I had done — was to read widely and deeply in the many excellent books that exist on the art of trial advocacy and on the role of lawyers in a democratic society. Unlike temporary pieces in a legal magazine, full length legal books are vetted by teams of editors and tend to be written only by attorneys who truly have achieved remarkable success in their careers. Some books on legal advocacy were written thousands of years ago and have achieved classic status.

Reading legal books brings insight and inspiration not to be found in brief articles published in passing periodicals. If I were young again I would devote half an hour every business day to read out of the best legal books I could find on how to improve my skills and thereby benefit each of my clients. Though not a billable half hour, the precious time I now spend reading the best legal books pays big dividends in lifting the value of each case I handle, just as an incoming tide lifts all boats. If I were young again I would read, read, read and then read some more.

If I were young again I would triple my investment in continuing legal education
In 1979 the Oregon State Bar did not require attorneys to complete any mandatory continuing legal education, though attorneys were of course “encouraged” to continue their education. In the 1980s, when mandatory continuing legal education was imposed, I usually met my requirements by ordering tapes of legal seminars, which I would listen to in my car. I rarely read the written materials and seldom attended CLEs in person. I just barely met the minimum mandatory requirements.

Big mistake. At about the 15 mile mark of my career I attended, for the first time, a national convention of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. I was inspired and transformed by that sudden education. For the first time I was exposed to a smorgasbord of teachings of attorneys with national reputations. Not long after attending that first convention I tried a very difficult case to a jury verdict with a result that would not have been likely without the insights I had gained at the conference. The fee on that one case more than paid all the costs of having attended the annual convention in person. Since then I have immersed myself in many national legal seminars. If I were young again I would make any financial sacrifice to attend in person the best CLEs sponsored in Oregon and also those sponsored nationally. I learned, incidentally, that nearly every speaker at national conventions was a deep reader in books of trial advocacy.

If I were young again I would turn away some business
I became so busy practicing law that I did not have time to be very involved in the leadership activities of the Oregon State Bar and of various other associations linked to the practice of law. I justified my absence by reasoning that my children were small and I needed to spend more time with them. That was true, and I certainly do not regret spending time at home with my family. But the sacrifice to participate in bar activities does not have to come from family. Instead, it can come from giving up some of the income of practicing law in exchange for giving back time and effort to help the profession. And, miraculously, those who give back often find that their efforts are coincidentally rewarded by increased referral revenue and by increased skills gained by giving knowledge and services to others. If I were young again I would volunteer for more service activities within the bar association and within the community itself. I would give more generously of my time and expect nothing in return except the satisfaction of giving back and the knowledge that giving back would make me a better attorney and a more tolerable person.

When my legal assistant wished me “Happy Anniversary,” I was 57 years old and not 27, the age at which I began. I have no desire to retire, and cannot think of anything that I would rather be doing than practicing law. If I should be blessed, God willing, to live another 30 years, my fondest hope would be that at age 87 I might write another article celebrating having taken my own advice and saying with the poet Robert Burns that at the 30-year mark “the best (was) yet to be.”

Kelly Andersen is a trial attorney in Southern Oregon. His practice emphasizes serious injury, wrongful death, product liability and professional malpractice claims.

© 2011 Kelly L. Anderson

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