Field Notes from an Unrepentant Legal Don Quixote
Shawn Newman, Guest Writer
Note from Brian Messing: It was a tremendous honor to be able to take a class from Shawn Newman. Not only is he a brilliant attorney, with years of experience and many stories throughout that time, he is someone who goes the extra mile to help his students succeed. When I told Professor Newman that I wanted to go to law school, he instantly connected me with other attorneys, and helped walk me through the steps that I would need to take to become an attorney. I will be forever grateful for the help that he gave me, and I was pleased to find out that he recently celebrated his 35th anniversary of practicing law.
“Martindale Hubbell recently sent me a congratulatory email on 35 years of practicing law. It caused me to look back at my career in the law and how I got here.
I come from a family of lawyers. My grandfather did insurance defense in Chicago at the time of Al Capone. I have his framed certificate of admission to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in my office. My brother went with the ‘big law’ route, working for large firms and companies in the Midwest. To paraphrase poet Robert Frost, I chose a path ‘less traveled,’ working for government, solo, and teaching.
My wife and I grew up in Northern Ohio where the land is as flat as a pancake. ‘Washington’ meant the District, not the state. While at Notre Dame Law School, we took a chance and flew ‘out West’ to check out possible opportunities. Olympia was one of those ‘faraway places with a strange sounding name you read about from books.’ We remember Mount Rainier was out in its full majestic glory. It looked like an illusion – so near, but so far.
It was Saint Patrick’s Day when I interviewed and was hired by the Attorney General’s Office. I felt it was destiny being a dual citizen of the U.S. and Ireland, and a Notre Dame graduate. I moved on to work as in-house counsel for local colleges and the State Senate. That lasted about a year before setting up my own practice above the old Cracker’s restaurant on 4th Avenue. My first office was a closet with a pillar in the middle. I begged my landlord for the space and opportunity to be housed on the same floor with other attorneys.
Over the years, I’ve represented institutions, businesses, presidential candidates (Ralph Nader and H. Ross Perot), rogues (‘The Hollywood Bandit’), judges, attorneys, employees, employers, non-profits, etc. I’ve worked with attorneys from around the country on animal welfare initiatives and foreclosure defense. I’ve argued and won cases before the State Supreme Court and the 9th Circuit. Although I am a solo, I currently have cases pending in superior court, Court of Appeals (Div. I and II), and the U.S. District Court.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the practice of law is not for wimps. Sometimes, it seems the legal profession thrives on schadenfreude. You have to be aware of the competing motives. What does your client hope to achieve? What are your motives for taking the client on? My standard mantra is “prepare for the worst, hope for the best.” Some clients don’t like to hear that and want some guarantees. Nope. I cannot guarantee anything other than my best efforts. As Nick Pulovski said to Eugene Ackerman in the movie, ‘The Rookie,’ ‘If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.’
My passion now is teaching. I teach various law-related courses at Saint Martin’s University and Pierce College. Some of these are online. I recall co-counseling with an attorney and law professor from the University of Utah. He would take time to do his work as a ‘cyber prof,’ with students via Skype. I now do the same via course management platforms.
‘Is it worth it?’ my colleague asks. We were commiserating over war stories and the challenges with doing civil rights cases. I noted how Jefferson wrote about the ‘pursuit of happiness’ and my belief that attorneys should dedicate themselves to the ‘pursuit of justice.’ I think about how Martin Luther King Jr. fought against injustice. In his last speech, he famously said:
‘I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.’
As President Obama loved to say, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Perhaps ‘justice’ is just an illusion, a dream. Perhaps, but in the end, it is the ‘pursuit’ of justice that gives us meaning and purpose.”