Photo of the attorneys of Costello, Mains and Silverman, LLC

Advocates for NJ and PA
Workers & Their Families

Partners and Counsel of Costello, Mains & Silverman, LLC
  1. Home
  2.  » 
  3. Civil Rights
  4.  » New Jersey Employment and Civil Rights Attorney Discusses “Nelson Mandela Day”

New Jersey Employment and Civil Rights Attorney Discusses “Nelson Mandela Day”

On Behalf of | Aug 28, 2014 | Civil Rights |

Or . . . Everything I need to know about being a lawyer I learned from Nelson Mandela. 

Of course, I don’t really mean that Mandela taught me to be a lawyer, or that his lessons, above those of any others (including my parents, for starters) are the “primary” reasons I became a lawyer or guide my practice toward certain behaviors and values.

On the other hand, when someone says “everything I need to know I learned from…”, what they’re really saying is that they consider the particular source to be an important moral, ethical, political or other lesson to which people ought pay heed.

And Mr. Mandela has earned some heed, worldwide.

Nelson Mandela lived quite a long and distinguished life. If we measure the most valuable wisdom as that coming from the greatest pain and suffering, then Nelson Mandela had a deep well of hard-won wisdom by the time he left the world. His wisdom emerges from some of his most memorable statements. I recently had the pleasure of reading an excellent blog from a fellow trial lawyer who spoke about Nelson Mandela. Shamelessly copying his approach, I’ve taken the same quotes and applied them to my life and my practice, as he did.

What impressed me the most about Nelson Mandela was the dignity with which he endured what he endured, and the grace with which he conducted himself when his durance ended. Far too often, the first thought that someone has when “durance vile” ends is to seek revenge, to vent your anger on the world. As we see in the world today, anger is too often the prime driver of individual, group and national conduct. Nelson Mandela embodies a lesson from which everyone can benefit.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

My father didn’t graduate high school. My mother didn’t go to college. Both were “smart,” in the sense that they had good native intelligence. Yet without the “honing” that education – formal or otherwise – applies to intelligence the same way that sharpening applied to quality steel turns it into a fine sword, they never got beyond that intelligence. It served them well in their lives, but it limited them.

My parents felt that an education was the only way that my brother and I would “get out of Brooklyn,” but they meant that more metaphysically than they did physically (I’m sure my mother would have been thrilled had I never left the borough). They just wanted better opportunities for my brother and I, and to them, “getting an education” was a means to an end.

On the other hand, my grandfather, the grandson of a Rabbi who despite this lineage was an atheist, believed that education was a self-administered paradigm. Passively letting someone else “handle” your education for only four or eight years (depending on whether you just went to college or also graduate school) was better than nothing, but it wasn’t the best thing that could be done. He loved reading, he loved science, he loved math, history and most of all, he loved the logical discourse of parsing through facts, forming a hypothesis and then examining the evidence to validate or invalidate that hypothesis. He was my gateway to the scientific method, a paradigm that I’ve practiced in my trial work and in my important personal decisions ever since.

My alma motor, Brandeis University, maintains on its shield “Truth, even unto its innermost parts.” The truth isn’t a belief, a bias, a passion, a prejudice or an emotional snap-judgment. It’s facts, and facts need to be respected for what they are, and applied to make the world a better place.

“The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

I tell my son all the time that everyone feels fear. Human beings are biologically designed to respond to fear. If we weren’t, there would be no human beings. Yet fear is an instinct. It is biological and involuntary, at least at its purest point.

The fear can be overcome. It has to be. People who are afraid of people who are not like them need to get over that fear to form a larger community. People who are afraid of someone else’s philosophical, religious or political views need to get over the fear of examining those “alien” views for the internal merit they may contain. Politicians need to overcome their fear of changing their mind because they thought through an issue or obtained better information and want to make a better decision. Everyone has to overcome the fear of change. Change is, once again, something that humans are instinctively opposed to. We find the best hunting spot and we don’t want to change. We find the best gathering spot and we want to stay there. The best cave and the best place to find fire? Sign us up and leave us alone.

On the other hand, the universe really doesn’t care what we want, and every piece of the universe-living and non-living-chances constantly. It’s one of the most fundamental laws of quantum mechanics and macrophysics (and thus, is a fundamental law of chemistry and biology).

Change may not always be “good,” but fear of change is what drives all human fear.

I feel fear just like everyone else does, but I’ve become good at knowing it for what it is and turning it off when I need to. If everyone did that, we’d all, as a race, be able to confront truth on better terms. The confrontation and recognition of truth is what trial lawyering is all about.

“A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

I’ve met well intentioned and good hearted people who weren’t bright, and I’ve met very intelligent people who weren’t very good hearted. Both can do great harm and great good. The well-intentioned but unintelligent person may easily be misled or intimidated into doing the wrong thing, while the very intelligent but selfish person might do good only when it suits their purposes to do so.

Yet having a good mind and a good heart is what every trial lawyer ought to strive for. It’s not enough to just be smart, but amoral, to place yourself as an non-volitional dagger in the hands of people with the wrong ideas and the wrong intentions. The medieval knights believed that one ought not draw steel unless one intended to use it justly. Doing anything else dishonored the blade, and the person who gave it to you.

The same is true of trial lawyering. I will not dishonor the blade I represent by placing myself in the service of the wrong cause or in the hands of the wrong people. I teach and counsel the same to the attorneys whom I mentor and those with whom I have professional relationships.

Too often, attorneys make decisions from the wrong emotional places and then rationalize “goodness” into what they know aren’t “good” decisions.

“There is no passion to be found playing small; in settling for a life that is less than the one that you are capable of living.”

There is no “dragon” too big to slay. Do I think about practical concerns when we’re invited to take cases on a “contingency,” where the firm takes financial risks? Of course. We can’t tilt at every windmill that comes are way or the firm will close its doors in months. On the other hand, when it’s apparent to us the cause is just and the facts and law are there, there’s no dragon too mighty to challenge. There’s only a heart not big enough to wield a sword against it. If there’s something worth doing, then it aught be done.

“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

This is about not being selfish. Could anyone have blamed Nelson Mandela, after decades of imprisonment and abuse, if he got out bitter and angry and did nothing for anyone else for the rest of his life? Nope. Human beings would say of such a person “we get it, he was in jail unjustly, tortured, now he’s out and he’s pissed, we get it.”

Yet the reason he’s a great man is because he lived in accordance with this quote. He didn’t just think about what happened to him, he turned his own personal experience into a way to enhance the lives of others.

Trial lawyers have a rare gift to be able to do that. I’m able to take experiences I’ve had in my life, and experiences I’ve shared with others, and apply them to the obtaining of justice It’s a privilege and an honor I never forget.

I always try to remember when I’m dealing with others, whether it’s my son, my wife, my colleagues at the firm or clients, that I’m setting an example. It’s not because I’m so important; it’s because I don’t want the one day that someone really takes to heart something I do or say to have it be the wrong thing.

A trial lawyer should always strive to uphold the law, to respect it, to apply it with mercy and sense, and to teach others to respect it as well. Lawyers should never denigrate the law or the cause of justice that it serves.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

It’s so easy for trial lawyers to fall into the bad habit of lecturing, to share only exposition and facts. It’s mostly what we’re taught to do when we learn to try cases, at least at a basic level. It’s hard, sometimes, for lawyers to embrace the idea that the jury to whom they’re speaking, to the Judge before whom they argue a motion, even to the client that they’re trying to prepare for trial, that they need to speak in a language that person understands, but more, that the person would use themselves. Having someone understand something isn’t as good as having them accept it internally.

In order to apply this lesson, we need to get rid of our arrogance, our selfishness and our

self-importance as trial lawyers and accept the fact that other people may think and communicate in a different way. If you can adopt someone else’s language and still get your message across, then you’re truly a great communicator. If you can be brief and direct, it’s better than being longwinded, something I tend to forget myself.

There’s an old quote from Mark Twain about brevity: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one.” Is this blog too long? I hope not.

“We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

Tomorrow may be a new day, but it may also may never come for you. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? Teaching your child right from wrong may be something best done tomorrow because you’re tired today, but now is better. The time to do justice (to decide a matter, to pass a new law) may be more easily thrown into the future, but today’s better; the sooner we do right, the less the harm that attends delay.

Today is the day to do right. Right now is the time to suggest that others do so.

To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”

This is one of the most powerful statements I’ve ever heard, because human beings are only very intelligent and organized apes if we can’t recognize that there’s something transcendental about our human dignity. It’s what civil rights is all about; it’s something that no trial lawyer who does this work should ever forget.