Answering the Call
When I was a little boy growing up in the Baptist church that my father pastored in North Memphis, our congregation would gather together on Wednesday nights for mid-week prayer meeting.
Mid-week prayer meeting was much less formal than a Sunday morning service. There wasn’t a choir behind my father; there wasn’t a music minster; there wasn’t even an organist. Rather, at the appointed hour my Dad would simply walk up to the front of the congregation, recite an opening prayer, and then he would ask a question. It was the same question every week: “Would anybody here tonight like to testify?”
Now let me quickly add for those of you who are not from the Evangelical Church that the term “testify” in the Evangelical Church is something very different from what you and I mean as lawyers. Dad never put anybody under oath. He never cross-examined anybody. When he asked brothers and sisters to “testify,” it was an invitation for the members of the church to stand up and briefly tell their story and talk about how blessed they were to be a part of the congregation.
Well, as we begin Law Week, I would like to testify about how I became a lawyer and how blessed you and I are to share a life in the law.
I am a first generation lawyer and proud of it. I come from a long line of preachers, not only my father, but my great-grandfather (a Methodist preacher) and my three uncles who are also preachers. All the men in my family are preachers. My late mother wanted to be a preacher as well, but we were Southern Baptists, and when it comes to hiring preachers, Southern Baptists are not equal opportunity employers.
And so I grew up with the conviction that I was going to someday be a minister like my Dad and all the men in my family. But a funny thing happened to me on the way to seminary: I met three trial lawyers. And I met them all when I was a little boy.
The first trial lawyer I met came into my home on a September night in 1957. He wasn’t invited in. He didn’t break in, but he suddenly appeared in black and white on a Sylvania TV screen. His name was Perry Mason.
I didn’t know what trial lawyers were until I saw Perry Mason.
Perry had two remarkable attributes that I have never seen in any other lawyer. First, Perry always represented innocent clients. And second, Perry always won. . .and won big.
Perry was a criminal defense lawyer who always defended clients wrongfully accused of murder. Perry did not believe in the reasonable doubt defense. None of that “if it doesn’t fit you must acquit” from Perry. The way Perry won at trial was that he proved his client’s innocence by proving who the actual killer really was, because, incredibly, the actual killer always came to trial and sat in the gallery. You see, Perry’s cross examination didn’t just wear down the witness on the witness stand. You and I can do that. He would wear down the real killer in the back of the courtroom to the point that Perry’s cross examination would be interrupted dramatically with the real killer standing up shouting, “Stop it Mr. Mason. He didn’t do it. I did it.” It was magnificent.
I’m not sure why they did this. Hypothetically, if I ever kill someone and some other innocent soul just gets charged with the homicide, I ain’t coming to his trial!
But on that September night when I was only five years old, I met the second trial lawyer of my life. He also came on my television screen. His name was Hamilton Burger. He was the prosecutor on the Perry Mason Show, and he had the longest losing streak in the history of American jurisprudence.
Hamilton Burger and Perry Mason tried one case a week from September of 1957 through May of 1966. They took the summers off, but that’s thirty-six trials a year for ten years. Hamilton lost three hundred thirty-six consecutive trials to Perry, all on national television.
Now when I was a little boy I wanted more than anything to grow up to be a trial lawyer like Perry. I wanted to always represent innocent clients and I wanted to win week after week after week on national television, and proving who the real killer was. But I am now in my thirty-sixth year of law practice, and I will tell you that my hero is not Perry Mason. My hero is Hamilton Burger. Why? Simple. Here was a man who lost one trial a week on national television to Perry Mason and never lost his job as District Attorney!
There was a third trial lawyer I met when I was a child. He came into my life at a “pichur show” (as we called them in those days) 1962. His name was Atticus Finch. Atticus Finch had something in common with Perry Mason and something in common with Hamilton Burger. Like Perry, he had an innocent client. . .Tom Robinson. But like Hamilton Burger, Atticus lost…He lost the biggest care of his career.
I will never forget the scene in the movie after the jury had returned a verdict against Tom Robinson. Atticus Finch slowly packed his briefcase and began to walk out of the courtroom. The African American citizens of Maycomb sitting in the gallery rise in his honor. Atticus’ children, Scout and Jem, are also in the gallery, sitting with Reverend Sikes, a minister. Reverend Sykes awakens a sleeping Scout and Jem and, addressing Scout by her proper name, said , “Miss Jean Louise, will you stand up. Your father is passing.”
It was that moment I knew I wanted to be a trial lawyer. But you see it was a secret I had to keep because everybody in the family was expecting me to be a minister. And this is where my story closes. It closes on June 10, 1964, my twelfth birthday. On that day, my mother made me a birthday dinner with all my favorite food: fried chicken, fried corn on the cob, fried peach pie. We were Southern Fried Baptists; that’s what we ate.
And then she gave me my birthday present. I unwrapped it. It was a Bible. It wasn’t just any Bible. It was a Scofield Reference Bible, just like my Daddy preached from every Sunday. And it came with a big theological string attached, because my mother said, “Son, you are going to use this Bible for the rest of your life because you are going to be a minister like your Dad.”
My heart sank. I couldn’t tell her about Perry Mason. I couldn’t tell her about Hamilton Burger. I couldn’t tell her about Atticus Finch, so I just said, “Thank you.”
Later that night I went to my Dad. I said, “Dad, thank you for the Bible, but I have a secret to tell you. Mom expects me to be a minister and I want to be a lawyer.”
My Dad looked at me and said, “Your mother is right.” Now my heart really sank, because on my twelfth birthday I was going to disappoint my mother and my father. But then Dad said this: “I believe that you mother is right and that you are going to be called to a life of ministry. Some people are called to lives of ministry as ordained ministers. Some people are called to lives of ministry as teachers or architects, and maybe, maybe, there’s a life of ministry in the law.” Dad added, “You take that Bible that Mom gave you. You look in the Sixth Chapter of Micha and see what it says.” And so I did.
It said, “What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.”
I share this testimony with you not to claim I have some unique calling from above. I do not. I share it with you because I believe my father was right. We are all called to lives of ministry. And as lawyers that ministry involves creating enterprises, resolving conflicts, and doing justice.
Let me close with the words of my hero, Atticus Finch: “I am no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of courts and in the jury system. That is no ideal to me. It is a living, breathing reality.”
As my father was fond of saying, “That’ll preach!”