BigLaw partner says lawyers have an obligation to give back to their communities
Character Witness explores legal and societal issues through the first-person lens of attorneys in the trenches who are, inter alia, on a mission to defend liberty and pursue justice.
I grew up in the “Wild 100s” in Chicago, a rough neighborhood that has been plagued by gun violence. I have been to too many funerals of boys. Indeed, I keep obituaries from some of the funerals I have attended on my desk. One boy was murdered when he was 10, another boy was murdered when he was 8.
There is something surreal about seeing a miniature casket sitting in the shadow of a framed kid-size jersey, especially knowing the child in the casket has lost his life to gun violence. There is something unfathomable about seeing a strong mom stand at attention as her baby’s casket closes for the last time. There is something unconscionable about watching boys quietly saunter by the casket of their murdered friend with their heads up and shoulders squared, barely allowing tears to escape hardened tear ducts that have witnessed the same nightmare over and over again.
The prospect of getting killed is a real burden that children in Chicago carry with them every single day. It was against that backdrop of despair that I organized a conference call a few years ago with leaders of various community groups that focus on mentoring boys to see if we could come together and create an event that might enable such boys to experience unfettered joy, even if just for a day. Vondale Singleton, the prolific and charismatic founder of the C.H.A.M.P.S.—Culturally Helping and Making Positive Success—mentorship program that works with boys on the city’s South Side, participated in that call. We instantly bonded, and together—along with leaders of several other mentorship programs—created a one-of-a-kind event called Black Boy Joy.
What is Black Boy Joy? It’s an annual program that, like some sporting events, is broken into two halves. The first half consists of positive workshops on topics designed to empower boys, help them face the daily challenges of life and think about their futures. These workshops have run the gamut of topics. There have been sessions on grief, conflict resolution, social and emotional intelligence, choosing a career, and just about every other subject pertinent to boys. We have even had mini-mock trials at this event. In contrast, the second half consists of fun and games designed to put smiles on the faces of boys who fear death and fully expect to be lionized with makeshift teddy bear memorials. Such fun and games included inflatable sumo wrestling, video game tournaments, basketball, live music, karaoke, cotton candy and clowns.
As you might imagine, Black Boy Joy is expensive and time-consuming. How is it paid for? My firm generously covers most of the cost, including event space rental, T-shirts, bus transportation and entertainment. The C.H.A.M.P.S. program then organizes the boys and plans logistics. This event has brought joy to hundreds of boys and reignited their ability to dream bigger than their environments.
Paying it forward
For lawyers, the natural question to ask is, “What is in it for me or my law firm?” I am not going to pretend that Black Boy Joy has resulted in large clients flocking to my firm. It hasn’t. The return on investment is me. The return on investment consists of boys who look like me. The return on investment is inspiring boys to hope in some very challenging circumstances.
It’s hard to describe how amazing working with C.H.A.M.P.S. and other mentorship programs to tackle issues surrounding gun violence has been. The experience has been more fulfilling than the practice of law could ever be for me. Indeed, like so many of you, practicing law is just what I do, it isn’t who I am. The truth is, I still feel a little uneasy walking on the marbled floors of my beautiful office and seeing the Chicago skyline glitter from my window. There are times—like when I was attending a summer associate event and heard the song “Sweet Caroline” for the very first time—when I still feel out of place. Notwithstanding, work with C.H.A.M.P.S. and other mentorship programs has made me feel connected to my law firm and the practice of law in ways that were once unimaginable. I may not be working on traditional pro bono cases, but I am still very much being a lawyer.
In that sense, my law firm has an old-school view of what civic engagement means. There was a time, I am told, when lawyers prided themselves on being civic leaders. Civic leadership doesn’t just mean slapping your name on an event flyer with the hope that some general counsel somewhere notices. It also means partnering with grassroots organizations, rolling up your sleeves, and bringing your unique legal training, problem-solving skills and life experiences to tackle tough societal problems.
Too many lawyers have forgotten their humanity. We have become so consumed with billing hours and rainmaking that we have forgotten the simple joy we felt when we used to shake cans on the quads of our universities for local charities.
Lawyers must once again become the standard-bearers of our society. We can do that through service. We can do that by taking the roads less traveled. If clients flow as a result of us doing the right thing, so be it; but the polestar must always be service to the communities in which we live. From that standpoint, the projected return on investment is incalculable.
Lindsey D.G. Dates is a partner in Barnes & Thornburg’s Chicago office and a member of the firm’s litigation department. Active in the community, Dates is currently the chair of the Chicago Committee, an organization that seeks racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession.