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Decency Is No Barrier to Justice or the Common Good

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My mentor in the practice of law, the person who taught me more than anyone else about life as a lawyer and an advocate, is a former Marine JAG officer and former chairman of one of the largest law firms in the Southeast. His name is Phillip D. Scott, and I could write an essay full of stories about the things he taught me — mainly by example. Here’s one.

Relatively early in my career he brought me into one of the more intense cases I’ve ever litigated. Each twist and turn headlined the local papers, and it was on a rocket docket — involving multiple oral arguments compressed into two trips to the Kentucky Supreme Court. It was the kind of case that absolutely consumes your life for weeks on end. You barely see your family. You barely sleep. You just work.

One afternoon, in the middle of the legal trench warfare, we received devastating news. The Kentucky Court of Appeals had ruled against us. The decision didn’t mean we were dead, but — to quote Monty Python — we were just “mostly dead.” I was furious at the manifest injustice of the decision, at the looming probable loss, and (I must admit) at opposing counsel. During contentious cases, tempers can flare, and there were more than a few moments when I didn’t just want to win, I wanted to rub opposing counsel’s face in the loss.

I was in Mr. Scott’s office (few people had the stature to call him “Phil”) when we got word, and the moment after he called the client to deliver the bad news, he picked up the phone again. I asked who he was calling. It was our opponents. He was calling to congratulate them on their victory. I was flabbergasted. All I wanted to think about was the appeal. All I wanted to do was to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. But in the midst of our apparent loss, Mr. Scott took the time to acknowledge our opponents’ work, their sacrifice, and their triumph.

It’s a lesson I never forgot — even when the Kentucky Supreme Court granted our request for review, reversed the Court of Appeals, and handed us victory in the case. He fought for our client. He fought for ideas. Yet he never forgot the humanity and dignity........

© National Review