Give Thanks For Invisible People And Remember That Trial Lawyers Can Save the World

May 19, 2020   |   Vernon Sumwalt

My last President’s Column. Here it is, and here I am — for the first time ever — sipping coffee in New Orleans as I start putting my thoughts to paper. It’s a brisk dawn. Late February. Mardi Gras. My balcony hangs above Canal Street, only a block from Bourbon Street. I wonder, “How do the streets get so clean so soon after mayhem? And so early in the morning? After all that happened down there last night?”

Just a few hours before, a horde of beadseekers stumbled through the trash, beer bottles and other litter. NOLA, I decide, is a lot different from where I grew up. But they have one thing in common, at least when the sun rises: They have clean streets. “Who did this? And so fast?”

When we have a chance to pause and take a breath, we see the fingerprints of many invisible people who make the world happen while the rest of us enjoy the ride. For them, we give thanks.

We Love Our NCAJ Staff and Volunteers

Writing these President’s Columns takes longer than an early morning in NOLA. For a long while now, I’ve pondered what to say before starting. My second cup of Joe keeps calling me back to something else. A thought I can’t shake.

We are different.

Maybe it was all those people walking the streets at Mardi Gras that made me realize the obvious. Maybe it’s that I recently turned 48 years old and can’t for the life of me figure out how that happened. The truth is that we are different now than we were five years ago. We are more different now than we were 10 years ago. We are even more different than we were 20 or 30 years ago. Life does what it wants no matter what we ask, and these challenges force change. Things change. We change. By “we,” I mean trial lawyers. I mean NCAJ.

We’re not unique in wanting to stay safe from changes, although how we rise up to meet them will define us. In 1665, the University of Cambridge shut down for almost two years because of an outbreak of bubonic plague A yet-undistinguished student who had worked his way to pay for Cambridge got his degree and retired to his home in Woolsthorpe. Over the next two years, the young Isaac Newton developed calculus, optics and the laws of gravitation. Not a bad response without FaceTime, without the Internet. Not a bad response at all.

William Shakespeare rode the same boat. In 1606, the plague shut theaters down for a year. What did Shakespeare do? He got to work, writing King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra in the off season. Not a bad response. Not a bad response at all.

When change comes, what will you do? Will you rise up?

Change is hard. No one likes it, but it happens, and it will keep happening. Just 10 years ago, NCAJ had a different director. NCAJ had a building that was (unlike now) habitable with an electrical system that wasn’t a fire risk. North Carolina had a different legislature, a different governor, a different appellate court judiciary. Some of you had hair. Some of you weighed less. Had fewer kids. Yes, things change. We’ve been changing with them.

Rewind to a couple of years ago when, in a stretch to tighten NCAJ’s budget and to trim our costs and to build a rock star brand, NCAJ assembled a hit team of talent that now makes things happen. NCAJ’s current staff is efficient and effective, and the word “competent” just touches the possibilities that are within their reach. They are the invisibles who make things happen. They make our CLEs pop, they make our meetings run, they make everything easy so we all can show up and get our own jobs done. For almost a year now, NCAJ staff have been operating virtually, bringing our organization’s overhead lower in our effort to control costs. Imagine what NCAJ can do over the next few years as our team modernizes us.

The same is true about our members who volunteer. You might not believe it, but I’ve served on a bunch of committees and attended lots of meetings over the years before getting the privilege to write these columns. As NCAJ president, I’ve had the luxury of taking a 500-mile view of our organization, which gave me a chance to watch and listen. A chance to pause and take a breath. What I see is that every person in this organization — as different as we are — inspires the rest of us. The energy and passion our committee members have shown this year puts our future in good hands. Our incoming leaders on the Executive Committee and Board of Governors are true trial lawyers, ready to rise to the occasion. We give back because we have been given much.

For our staff and volunteers who make the NCAJ world go around, there are no words good enough. Except two.

Thank you.


You can’t plan this stuff.

You really can’t. Along my path of writing this column, COVID-19 hits and we’re now in social isolation. Kind of like Newton leaving Cambridge or Shakespeare retiring to write from home. I’ve worked from home for weeks now and, as an introvert, love it. Life happens, of course, but life also figures out a way. We’ll figure out a way. We’ll get through this.

A year ago, I had no idea I would be the NCAJ president who would finish his term with our courts shut down for months, our economy sliding and our practices unbalanced because of a pandemic. Like I said, you can’t plan this stuff. We could look at the discouraging news. Or, we could look around us at where we are and give thanks.

We give thanks that we had the prescience to cut our organizational expenses and reduce our staff size. As difficult as those decisions were, they innoculate NCAJ against the economic aftermath that we expect from the COVID-19 crisis. We give thanks for our Building Committee members, who lost sleep over the past 2½ years about letting the Annapolis Drive property go on the market, only to appreciate that this decision was the only financially sound one and the one that best insulates NCAJ during the upcoming period of economic uncertainty. We give thanks that, as the rest of the world shifts to working from home, NCAJ’s operations have already been virtual this past year. Like I said, you can’t plan this stuff. Life happens, and luck does not discriminate. When it falls in your favor, you give thanks.

The Final Words

OK, here they are. My final words. If you’ve read my other columns this year, I’ve always tried to throw something out to ponder. Politics will be on everyone’s tongue as we move forward through this crisis. On top of that, we have the Republican National Convention converging in Charlotte in August and a couple of exciting elections coming up. North Carolina is going to be an exciting place.

I do not celebrate the political division in our country. To the contrary, I say this only because one of the greatest tools to bring people together is a common foe. A common challenge. Maybe, just maybe, COVID-19 provides this chance, despite our differences. Over the past few months, I’ve read political posts that blamed one party or the other, but I’ve also seen some where public servants from opposite parties are working with each other in an effort to contain COVID-19. Let me say it again: Some of them are working together. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen this happen in a long time.

Over the past few years, NCAJ has made very deliberate and concrete steps in becoming bipartisan or, maybe more accurately, non-partisan to encourage all to work together to preserve our Constitutional rights to trial and legal representation. We needed to do this, and we have done well. We have a lot more to do. We have the right executive director and lobbying team to get us there, to build our lobbying network, and to actually push legislation instead of playing defense all the time. It takes trust.

I’m trying to teach my kids to trust our political process now, while they’re young and still willing to learn, because growing older seems to calcify beliefs until they become arthritic. When President Obama was elected, it perturbed me when his opponents attacked him within 24 hours of the election because he had not had a chance to lead. When President Trump was elected, it perturbed me when his opponents attacked him within 24 hours for the same reason. What has happened to us as Americans? Why must we insist that everyone think and do exactly what we think and do? And why is everyone wigging out when we don’t get our way? Why can’t we pull together, and what is it going to take to get us there?

Our community — our very country that I grew up believing was indivisible with liberty and justice for all — for all — has been divided. Polarized. People just want to win the game, instead of playing with good sportsmanship. Our political comments are worse than what loud fans shout in the stands. This drift toward winning shouldn’t surprise you, because we are all neurologically wired to think in binary patterns (Think: fight/flight, day/night, black/white, etc.) and we naturally gravitate toward extremes. The divide highlights the fact that our camaraderie as trial lawyers, and the mentoring we can provide, is needed now more than ever.

Our country’s quest to form a more perfect union concedes both our imperfection and our common dream of coming together, no matter our differences. It also recognizes the struggle to unite. We, the trial lawyers, are the best agents of mentoring our community so that our neighbors can decide their own disputes.

Now, rewind our species hundreds of thousands of years for the pattern that fits all political disputes in today’s world and you can see what we’re up against. Take a tribe with a crisis — say, a food shortage, or COVID-19 — that threatens it. Half of the tribe thinks that everything will be OK if they stay in the valley. The crops will return, and the cows will come back. The other half believes if the tribe packs up and crosses the mountain ridge, things will be better in the valley on the other side. Which side is right? Maybe one is. Maybe both are. Maybe both aren’t. I’m not smart enough to figure it out, so if anyone out there wants to enlighten me with the “right” answer, I’m all ears. But remember: It’s not what you say, but what I’ll hear that matters.

What words you use are less important once I figure out why you’re calling. Is it just to tell me you’re right and I should think the way you think? That I shouldn’t think because you’ve thought it through for me? If so, there are better ways to persuade.

Here’s what I want to leave you with, assuming your beliefs have not yet calcified, and you want our tribe to stick together. You don’t have to love the tribal chief. You don’t even have to respect the chief. But you do have to respect the people who vote for the chief, because their beliefs are just as important to them as yours are to you.

They are our neighbors, who are just as exposed to COVID-19 as we are. They are our neighbors we played with as kids, before the labels of partisanship spoiled our opinions. They are our neighbors who serve on our juries. Any way you look at it, it all comes back to one thing. They are our neighbors. As much as we love our own beliefs, we must respect the beliefs of others. If we wear their moccasins for a mile, maybe we will start to appreciate where they come from.

To understand them as people and not through the lens of some label. If we climb in their skin and walk around in it for a while (remember the lawyer who said we should do that?) then maybe, just maybe, we will begin to appreciate them. Because they are our neighbors and we should respect where they come from as much as we value where we do. I think many folks have forgotten this rule of civility. But we, the trial lawyers, are the mentors who can change the world and set the beacon that others can follow. We can take our Sixth and Seventh Amendment rights the extra mile. One case at a time. One person at a time. Because it is our time to walk our world through change.

So, I leave you with this. Love people for who they are, not who you want them to be. Walk in their moccasins. Climb in their skin. Above all, keep your professionalism and reputation intact. Be useful. Be human. Why? Our community depends on us. Our neighbors depend on us. Our Constitution depends on us. And, yes, there are some things in life that really are that important. Thank you.

Vernon Sumwalt is the outgoing president of the NCAJ this year. He finds it hard to write about himself in third person, so abrupt changes to first person will happen. Like, right now. Friends, I would never have gotten the chance to be NCAJ President this year if it weren’t for you. Over the years, I’ve admired you, tried to be like you, even ripped off some of your best tricks in trying to become a better trial lawyer. This past year has been a roller coaster — as I promised it would be — and we’ve done our best to set our course. We know there will be more challenges to come — COVID-19 is just one of them — and we’re ready. Our NCAJ staff and volunteer leaders are top notch, and it’s really exciting to see where we’re headed with our Strategic Plan. Along the way, so many of you stepped up and asked how you could help out. How you could make NCAJ greater. You did, and you do. Every one of you. Every day. We have the best jobs on Earth. Keep it up, remember to be proud of and support each other, and thank you again for this chance. Thank you very much.