Running the Relay: Passing the Bar and Passing the Baton by Frank Overton Brown Jr.

FrankBrownIn track and field, a relay race is run by the members of a team, each of whom runs a measured distance, or leg, over a track of finite distance. Critical to the success of the team effort is individual effort and the sure-handed successful passing of the baton from one runner to the next in the marked change, or takeover, zone of the track. One of the keys to winning this event is how quickly and skillfully the baton is successfully passed in the change zone. Running a relay race involves great individual effort and a strong sense of teamwork.

In the legal profession, as it relates to service to the public, the relay race is run by members of the bar, each of whom runs a variable distance, or lifetime, over a track of infinite distance.

We have become lawyers by the hard work of attending law school or reading the law, and by passing the bar examination. We then have received the baton from others who have run the leg preceding us in the profession. Despite the fact that lawyers often represent clients who have different, competing, and divergent interests from those persons who are represented by other lawyers, we are all members of one team — the profession of law, in which we are bound together by the privilege of being licensed to practice and agreeing to the professional and ethical rules of being a lawyer. Figuratively, those of us who carry the baton today are carrying the same well-worn baton that was passed by George Wythe to Thomas Jefferson.

Over the years, the baton has passed from hand to hand, having been juggled only a few times, but having been consistently and successfully recovered. In total, twenty-six of the forty-four presidents of the United States have been lawyers, and, of the first sixteen presidents — Washington through Lincoln — thirteen were lawyers. Some of those practiced law and others also did other things, such as drafting the Constitution, writing the Declaration of Independence, and founding the University of Virginia.

If there had been a Senior Lawyers Conference at the time, and if they had all been otherwise eligible, eleven of the thirteen would have been members by virtue of being fifty-five years of age or older at the time that they began serving as president. This was at a time when someone fifty-five years of age was a relatively old person. Today, a person who is fifty-five probably has a life expectancy of at least eighty-one, depending upon health care, lifestyle, and many other factors. Many persons plan to work long past the former traditional retirement age of sixty-five years. That is a long time in which to make more contributions in life.

Most of us will never have the opportunity to render public service in our senior years in the same way that our early presidents did, but we have opportunities in other, more direct, ways to enhance our honorable profession in the spirit of public service, whether we are active or retired lawyers. The opportunities include serving the interests of our clients well; being involved in family, civic, religious, charitable and educational matters; improving our legal system, including the delivery of legal services; taking an interest in and being active in the organized bar and its governance; presenting continuing legal education programs; voting in elections; and participating in our government.

By way of example, let’s look at one short leg of the relay and at one continuous effort by members of the Virginia State Bar on behalf of the senior citizens of Virginia. I am referring to the Senior Citizens Handbook. First published in 1979, the Senior Citizens Handbook has been published in twelve editions, and has been produced and revised by the pro bono, volunteer, diligent work of young lawyers, senior lawyers, and lawyers in between. The Senior Lawyers Conference of the Virginia State Bar prepares the Senior Citizens Handbook, with funding in part from the Virginia Law Foundation. With the support and encouragement of the Honorable Leroy R. Hassell Sr., Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, the handbook is widely distributed throughout the commonwealth. This is the Virginia State Bar’s most popular publication. In an informative way, it covers a wide variety of topics of interest to senior citizens, such topics as Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, pensions, veterans’ benefits, Railroad Retirement Act benefits, food stamps, federal tax relief, real estate tax reductions for the elderly, Medicaid, Medicare, medigap and Medicare supplemental insurance, long-term care insurance, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, adult day care, home care, continuing-care retirement communities, landlord-tenant issues, rental assistance, reverse mortgages, divorce and the elderly, estate planning and probate, advance directives, powers of attorney, guardianships, funeral services, protection of legal rights, age discrimination, grandparental visitation rights, elder abuse, alternative dispute resolution, and agency contact information.

The Senior Citizens Handbook is distributed at public information gatherings and is placed by local bar associations or lawyers in libraries, churches, assisted living facilities, or other appropriate locations. A newly revised edition (2009) of this publication is currently available through the VSB Publications Office at (804) 775-0548, and is available online.

Members of the bar are constantly looking for ways to improve the usefulness of the Senior Citizens Handbook. Beginning in 2005, the Senior Lawyers Conference developed and has encouraged Senior Law Day Programs throughout the state.

Senior Law Day Programs are based upon a format developed by former conference chair William T. Wilson, who planned and implemented the first program with the Alleghany-Bath-Highland Bar Association in Covington. Since then, the programs have been successfully presented all over the commonwealth and continue to be presented. These programs are endorsed by Chief Justice Hassell.

As Bill Wilson has said, “In my judgment, the programs are ‘win-win-win.’ The senior citizens win because they are receiving information about legal issues affecting their lives which they otherwise might not receive. If you have been present for or have participated in one of these programs, you know how attentively and appreciatively the senior citizens receive the program and how interested they are in the subject matter. The program is also a win for the lawyers and their bar associations because it is impossible to be a part of one of these programs and not see the enormous good that is being accomplished. To be able to give information to senior citizens and know that they are receiving information vital to their well-being is a rewarding and professionally satisfying thing to do. The program is also a win because it raises the image of the lawyers, the legal profession, and the bar associations in the eyes of the public.”

The Senior Law Day Program is designed so that each locality’s program can be structured around the master blueprint, in order to meet the particular needs of that community’s senior citizens. This program illustrates the supportive role of individual lawyers and of the Senior Lawyers Conference in helping to meet the needs of senior citizens through cooperative efforts with local bar associations. The blueprint for this program (which is built around the Senior Citizens Handbook) is provided by the SLC to local and specialty bar associations.

One of the many lawyers who carried and passed the baton regarding the Senior Citizens Handbook was the late Edward S. Hirschler of Richmond, a co-founder of the law firm of Hirschler Fleischer. Mr. Hirschler died in 1998 at age eighty-three. In his senior years he edited the Senior Citizens Handbook with dedication and zeal on a pro bono basis on behalf of Virginia’s senior citizens. Today the Hirschler Fleischer law firm has a formal pro bono policy that encourages pro bono services by its attorneys and credits each attorney up to thirty hours per year for pro bono legal services toward the attorney’s annual billable hour requirement.

Many other lawyers have given of their time, talents and expertise in preparing, reviewing, revising, and editing the Senior Citizens Handbook, in order to maintain and enhance its usefulness to Virginia’s senior citizens. Among those is Leigh B. Middleditch Jr., senior counsel at McGuireWoods LLC in Charlottesville, who served as chair of the old Senior Lawyers Section, and was involved in revisions to the Senior Citizens Handbook in the past. He is now seventy-nine years of age and is legendary for his pro bono work. In recognition of his distinguished record of service to the profession and community, the American Bar Association Senior Lawyers Division awarded the 2009 John H. Pickering Award of Achievement to Leigh Middleditch. I am happy to say that Leigh Middleditch is still running the relay.

Using and distributing the 2009 edition of the Senior Citizens Handbook, I recently had the honor of presenting a mini-Senior Law Day Program in Prince George County in cooperation with the Prince George County TRIAD program.

Virginia TRIAD’s motto is “Reducing Crime against the Elderly.” A major purpose of TRIAD is to develop, expand, and implement effective crime prevention and education programs for older community members. Activities center on both pre-victimization (preventive) and post-victimization (victim and witness assistance) aspects. Among the goals of TRIAD are to reduce the fear of crime and victimization among senior citizens by increasing awareness of scams, frauds and other crimes targeting them; by strengthening communications between law enforcement communities and seniors; and by educating seniors about local and state resources that are available in their communities. Virginia has a statewide TRIAD coordinating office in the office of the Attorney General of Virginia, and Virginia has the highest number of active local groups in the United States, with more than 225 cities, counties, and towns covered by signed TRIAD agreements and programs. The coordination of the TRIAD program by the attorney general is another example of a lawyers acting in the best interests of Virginia’s senior citizens.

On behalf of the public, we are continuing to run the relay in the legal profession, and, as we approach the change zone with arm extended, firmly grasping the baton, and holding it forward, the runner in the next leg of the race will take the baton and continue steadfastly on, knowing that there will be someone ahead to run the next leg of the race. That is teamwork.

© 2009 Frank O. Brown Jr.

Frank Overton Brown Jr. is the editor of the Virginia State Bar Senior Lawyer News, past chair of the VSB Senior Lawyers Conference, and a former member of the VSB Council. Brown is a fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the Virginia Law Foundation, a charter member of the University of Richmond Estate Planning Advisory Council, and co-founder of the University of Richmond Estate Planning Seminar. He authors the Virginia Probate Handbook and holds bachelor’s, master’s, and juris doctor degrees from the University of Richmond. His private Richmond practice concentrates on estate and trust planning, estate and trust administration, and related tax matters.

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Updated: Aug 12, 2009