OCBA UPDATE: What's your legacy?

By Judith K. Cunningham

"You are history longer than you're fact."

A few years ago I read "In Memory of Junior," a novel by Clyde Edgerton about a passel of North Carolinian relatives waiting to see who among their older kin would die first. As you might imagine the book is packed with eccentric characters and southern humor but it leaves a lasting impression. According to The New Yorker magazine, it "shines a clear, warm light on the dark side of things." That phrase, "you are history longer than you're fact," is repeated a few times in the story and struck a chord with me.

Have you thought about your "history"? Or put another way, have you thought about your personal or professional legacy? Perhaps we don't think about these things until we are further along in our lives, but then, driving north on Telegraph Road on my way to the courthouse, I see a billboard for Marygrove College asking, "What will history say about you? Make your mark." Certainly Marygrove College is not just seeking out middle-aged students. At some point we all start thinking about our histories, our legacies.

By the time this column reaches our OCBA membership I will have retired from my career at Oakland County. Since announcing my leaving, I've heard from lawyers, clients, judges, friends, county employees and others. In general, their reactions seem to fall in one of three responses:

(1) Where are you going? To a law firm? To teach?

(2) Why are you leaving? You're going to be bored; you have too much energy to "retire"; and

(3) I'm so envious.

No matter their responses, everyone with whom I've communicated has wished me well. I like to think that it's not retirement but rather the next phase or a transition time in my life and career.

Inevitably, though, the next questions I'm asked are what do I want to be remembered for and what do I think are the highlights of my so-called body of work?

As I reflect on my 30-plus years with the court and county, it occurs to me that I could list the projects, programs, initiatives, events, lawsuits, conferences, presentations and other matters I either initiated or participated in over the course of the last three decades, but I don't think that, for example, I really want to be remembered as the lawyer who drafted the amendments to the Jail Overcrowding Emergency Act and testified about county jails before the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. And anyway, who will ultimately care about that, except perhaps some misdemeanant or felon who got out of jail early because of the new law? Anyway, he or she won't connect an early release date with a lawyer who worked up at the courthouse in Pontiac.

Here's what I hope my legacy will be, and it's derived from e-mails, phone calls and conversations I've had with friends, colleagues, staff and clients.

One of the lawyers on my staff whom I affectionately refer to as a "brainiac" once said to me, "I learn so much from you." She wasn't referring to a legal analysis but rather how I advised her to handle a sensitive political situation brought on by a legal question from an elected official. I just helped her work through the problems - both legal and political.

Or this from a now-retired manager of the county's Human Resources Department:

"You taught me how to write."

I had no idea what she was referring to, so I asked if she had been one of my students back in the early 1970s when I taught English classes and composition as a community college instructor.

"No," she said. "Remember about 15 or 20 years ago you used to do those one-day writing classes for county employees? I learned more about writing in that one day than I ever learned in years of school."

I had no recollection of her being in any of the classes - but I can assure you that her comment about learning from me has stayed with me.

And this in an e-mail from a now-46-year-old law school professor who worked for me as a summer intern in 1986 and learned of my retirement from her mother, a county commissioner and client:

"When I first worked in the courthouse after my freshman year of college, I was nineteen and you were my first female role model. I was then and remain now so impressed with how you managed ... I remember a conversation we had in your office about law school. Of course, I wanted to be just like you. And of course I found out just how difficult it is to manage people and operations with grace ..."

And this from a lawyer I mentored many years ago who still works for the court:

"I can't imagine where I would be if not for you. Actually - you have changed my life both professionally AND personally!"

And finally, upon reading about my retirement in the Legal News, another young lawyer sent me this e-mail:

"For me and other women lawyers, I am saddened that we will no longer have you as a role model ... [after] all you have done to encourage and support other women in this profession. You have been a safe harbor for me and many others."

I'm sharing these comments because they go to the core of what I hope my legacy will be: that I taught, shared, encouraged lawyers and staff, and that somehow they perceived that I inspired them, nurtured their careers, impacted their professional lives.

In my first column written last August, I shared my "nudge, nurture, nag" theory of leadership, management, parenting, teaching, relationships, etc. If I nudged or nurtured you in a positive way, I'm delighted that's how you'll remember me. If I irritated you because I resorted to being the nag, well - too bad. I probably had good cause. And if you and others perceived me as the nag, I'm sure there was a collective sigh of relief on April 26, the day I walked out of the courthouse for the last time.

Whew! She's gone!

So once again, do I want my legacy to be that of the lawyer who authored the amendments to the Jail Overcrowding Emergency Act, or do I want to be remembered for inspiring a student or another lawyer, nurturing his or her career, sharing some expertise I may have or mentoring or influencing someone professionally or personally? That's an easy one for me. As a mentor, as a teacher, we never know where our influence ends. That's what I hope will be my legacy.

As far as the myriad projects, lawsuits, events and the like go, at some point the Jail Overcrowding Emergency Act will need further amendments, so some other lawyer or judge will necessarily make those revisions. Who knows? Maybe it will be one of those folks I mentored along my journey.

Think about it: What will be your history, your legacy? How will you make your mark?

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Judith K. Cunningham is the 80th president of the Oakland County Bar Association.

Published: Thu, May 23, 2013