Tony van Westrum’s DBA Award of Merit Speech
Editor’s Note: For the sake of brevity, Award of Merit winner Tony van Westrum chose to make his remarks at the DBA Annual Party very brief. He handed out the speech at the party, but it is well worth reprinting. Here is an edited version. Read the full text at http://www.denbar.org.
1. The Beginning.
I practiced law for nearly 20 years before the bar associations gained any hold on my life. I just did my client work from my little office, with the door generally closed; contended with life in a large law firm; and went home, often late at night, to my family. I never attended a DBA annual party, nor journeyed to the Broadmoor for the annual CBA convention.
Then one day in 1988, I started learning how to use the computer to do what I had long done with yellow pads of paper: write contracts. It was just at the time that Claude Maer reconvened the Colorado Corporation Code Revision Committee to consider revisions that had been made in the Revised Model Business Corporation Act.
Using my developing word-processing skills, I showed up at the first drafting meeting with a copy of the model RMBCA text, modified by my boldfacing and strikethroughs to show how I thought it could be improved. Instantly, I was the keeper of the document and I remained in that role over the next several years as the Bar committee labored away.
In 1990, I took our product to the Business Law Section to see if they’d give it their blessing and let us carry it on to the CBA Board of Governors for approval as Bar-sponsored legislation. Larry Theis, then-chair of the section, said: "Sure, and would you like to be our secretary?"
Not knowing better, I said, "Sure." And that opened the door onto a new community for me, the community of lawyers who are the heart of Colorado’s bar associations. Sixteen years later, that community is the one in which I spend most of my time. As a solo practitioner, my colleagues in that community are the lawyers — men and women — to whom I turn for professional advice. They have become my friends and companions. I am at home there.
Any lawyer can join the Denver Bar Association, or the Colorado Bar Association, and dive right in, welcomed for what he or she can contribute, without any prior review of credentials. That’s remarkable, and wonderful.
My typical experience with the bar associations takes place in a small room, sitting amidst a small group of lawyers and plowing through some proposal for legislation, something to do with some dry and dense document that will, when enacted, have a real impact on this or that part of Colorado’s economy and, occasionally, on Colorado society.
One of the things that strikes me over and over again, besides the intelligence and dedication of the diverse group of legal nerds who toil with me, is how invigorated I feel when I hear a really good lawyer say, "Is that the way it works? I never knew that." My self-confidence receives a useful jolt when I am thereby reminded that I am not the only one who doesn’t know everything! At 62, that is a lesson I love relearning. I tell young lawyers that they can learn it at an early age — when it can save them much anguish — simply by signing up to work at the Bar.
I’m sure someone clever can make a lawyer joke out of it, but I love spending time with lawyers, the kind of time one spends in bar association activities. There, we are all working for free, working because we want to, and we are working to make something better. We don’t need to worry about selling our souls to the devil for a legal fee. We can count ourselves among the saints for our good works. And we can count ourselves among the lucky for being able to spend time with earnest, bright, polite, entertaining, interesting people: our colleagues.
3. A Current Project for the Associations.
I like it best when I’m laboring out of sight. Standing in front of a crowd, all of whom do know more than I do, is not my cup of tea. But occasionally there is work to do that must be done in public.
Right now, lawyers are faced with such a task, one that will best be served if those of us who believe in the cause grab the elbows of our friends and neighbors — lawyers and layfolk alike — and talk earnestly to them.
I’m talking about the proposal that will be on the ballot in November this year; the proposal to amend Colorado’s too-often-amended constitution to impose term limits on judges, at least (for now) appellate judges.
Polling indicates that the citizenry at large loves anything that comes wrapped in the code words "Term Limits" — even if it is a particularly terrible idea like term limits for judges. I suppose the voters would vote for a term limit for Santa Claus, if the proposal had the words "term limits" in italics.
We have a perfectly good retention-vote system for weeding out the bad judges, and history has shown that we haven’t had much weeding to do, because our selection process works so well in the initial selections.
It will be a tough task to get each voter to think rather than just jerk the knee. That can best be done by individual conversation, by you talking with all of the voters you know in your own lives. The judges themselves cannot speak on the issue. This is a perfect job for us, the bar associations and the lawyers who are their members: defending the defenseless.
4. A Personal Credo.
As I entered solo practice a decade or so ago, I kept repeating this mantra: "All I have in life is time." Each day I have a golden coin, and I should spend it to buy something worthwhile, worthwhile to me personally, for that day, so that when I look back on that day I will be satisfied with what I bought. I don’t know how many coins are in my bank — only an unfortunate few of us do — but I want to feel I’m making good use of them, by my own measure, not by others’ standards.
And yet each of us is doing the same thing — we are all just spending the days of our lives. We can each help each other make a good purchase; that costs us nothing.