Under Analysis: Celebrating death and other unlikely holidays

By Spencer Farris

Birthdays have been on my mind lately, and not just because our nation’s birthday gave us a couple extra sleep in days last week. My own birthday came and went as well. My somberness this week doesn’t come from that, but from another life event.

I was talking to a lawyer a couple of weeks ago about one of his office mates. I mentioned that we had butted heads early in my career but she and I get along great now as she seems to have mellowed. He smiled and said that she wasn’t the only one that mellowed – I had too.

This came as bit of a surprise. Looking in the mirror each day, it is hard to realize that I’ve gotten older. Ditto for mellower. The gray hairs have crept in and my hairline itself has crept away, but gradually. Conceit or failing eyesight have kept me from noticing too much. I remember early in my career after winning a jury trial. A juror came up to me and said “you will be a pretty good lawyer when you get some gray hair.” If the prediction is accurate, I should be great by now.

It is often said that men are like grapes – stomp on them long enough and they become something you wouldn’t mind having at dinner. As lawyers age we definitely mellow. As a young lawyer I made up in confidence for what I lacked in knowledge.  Often in error, never in doubt would have been the headline for my thirtysomething obituary. Fortunately that never got printed.

Practicing law is one of the few professions where we actually get better as we get older. I say that through clenched teeth as I have lost yet another pair of reading glasses in the pile of papers on my desk. Still, I am less anxious as I walk into court these days with the knowledge that even the worst ain’t that bad. The law changes as gradually as we lawyers do, and is easier to track.

Older lawyers get the most important acknowledgement from judges—inflection. Although you can’t read it here, there is a big difference between “Ah, Mr. Farris!” and “Aw, Mr. Farris.” Judges expect more from older lawyers and most times we have the common sense and experience to deliver. Not always of course. These days I am embarrassed to see flashes of the brash younger me come out in the courtroom. Less often I hope, but it happens.

As a lawyer representing injury victims I am all too aware that the end of our lives can be just a heartbeat away. I shudder to look at the statistics for my own
life expectancy. Even with the knowledge of death’s certainty however, we are ill prepared when it finally arrives. I am still shaking my head at the recent passing of my friend Larry.

Larry was a lawyer in a rural community. I had just seen him a couple of weeks before his sudden and unexpected death. Larry was an expert witness and we got to visit for a few hours when he gave his deposition. We spent less time talking about the case than about deer hunting, but that was the usual with him. He loved the law but he loved life more.

News of his death reached my ears from a mutual client. It didn’t dawn on me then how significant it was that our client would take notice of his passing, let alone reach out to me.

His funeral service was unlike any I have ever attended. Larry’s family spoke about him briefly and then lit a candle. Those of us in attendance then lit a smaller candle from that one and told a “Larry story.”

The stories had similar themes. Larry’s shirtless T-shirt uniform. Larry’s love for his wife and family. Things that would’ve seemed eccentric from other folks were simply commonplace to this man. He marched to his own drummer, and invited those around him to join the band.

His funeral was in central Missouri, but lawyers from far and wide came to pay respects. Several of them had only met him on the phone but felt like they knew him from hours long phone conversations. The impact of those conversations was clear given the long journey it took them to get to the little church in the country.

Perhaps the biggest impact on me was the number of Larry’s clients who came to pay their respects. I can’t think of a bigger compliment to a lawyer’s life than thankful clients who mourn his passing.

Several of the folks quoted from a poem that Larry had shared with them:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

I don’t know many lawyers who quote poetry to their clients. Maybe we should. I only hope that when I cross the bar my clients and fellow lawyers notice. As this lawyer gets older, that thought occupies my time more than a little.
Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Spencer Farris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St Louis, Missouri. May there be no moaning of the bar, when I put out to sea.  Comments or criticisms about this column may be sent c/o this newspaper or directly to the Levison Group via email at farris@farrislaw.net.
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