A recent gathering of Kentucky lawyers showed the ‘noble calling’ at its best | Opinion

Do you ever see something you know is not right? Does something at odds with truth, fairness, or basic human decency gnaw at you? Are you stirred to action regardless of the obstacles? As lawyers, we reach the zenith of our profession when the answer to each question is “Yes!” We are at our best when we cannot fail to act to right wrongs, save lives, and make our world a better place.

This compulsion makes our profession “A Noble Calling,” which was the theme of this year’s fantastic Kentucky Bar Association Annual Convention.

‘Noble’ in our profession signifies personal qualities of unselfishness, high moral principles, honesty, integrity, and a focus on the greater good.

Take Cincinnati attorney Rob Bilott, who exposed DuPont Chemical’s deadly soil and water contamination with toxic “forever chemicals” used in making Teflon. Despite being a partner in a law firm that defended big chemical companies, he took the time to listen to his grandmother’s neighbor, Wilbur Tennant, a rural West Virginia farmer near Parkersburg, who said all his cows were dying after drinking from a stream into which foaming white discharge from a DuPont-owned landfill flowed. Mr. Tennant knew DuPont was responsible, but nobody would listen.

Mr. Bilott convinced his partners to accept this case, which led to a lawsuit against DuPont. He discovered DuPont had been dumping hundreds of tons of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)—a toxic chemical DuPont invented during WWII to waterproof tanks but now used in its production of Teflon—into the landfill upstream from Mr. Tennant’s farm.

Twenty years later, Rob and his team won a class-action lawsuit on behalf of citizens across the country sickened by DuPont’s chemical. The EPA also found DuPont violated the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) by intentionally concealing the toxicity of PFOA and by contaminating the water supply of thousands of residents.

After reading a New York Times feature on Rob, Actor Mark Ruffalo called him and insisted they make a movie to spread the word about these forever chemicals. The result, “Dark Waters,” is now showing on Netflix.

And what is more noble than sacrificing yourself for others? You may have heard of my colleague, Bruce Simpson, who has been a superb lawyer for more than 40 years. But he believed he made a mistake he could not overcome and tried to commit suicide. He bought a new gun and pulled the trigger, but, incredibly, it failed to fire. Later that night, he prayed and became filled with a “peace that surpasses all understanding.” Ever since he knew he would be okay and welcomed God’s new life purpose to help others.

Upon receiving an award for his lifesaving mission to help others, Bruce said at 74, he is the best he has ever been. He wants people to know that suicide is so unnecessary and that there is a way out.

Bruce also contacted our colleague Yvette Hourigan, the national award-winning Executive Director of the Kentucky Lawyer Assistance Program, a KBA initiative focused on attorney health and suicide prevention. Like Bruce, Yvette is laser-focused on giving hope and saving lives.

Finally, the Bar honored us attorneys providing pro bono Guardian ad Litem service on behalf of neglected and abused children. Though considered a “noble calling,” my colleagues and I feel we receive more from our service than we give.

The ability to practice law is a privilege and honor. I am blessed to be a member of the Kentucky Bar and positioned to serve others in this, my second career. I hope to do as Mr. Bilott encouraged us: “Recognize the incredible opportunities we have as lawyers to step out of our comfort zones, out of traditional ideas of ‘lanes,’ and do the right thing.”

Ours is a noble calling indeed.

Richard Dawahare
Richard Dawahare

Richard Dawahare is a Lexington attorney.