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Two chapters in the life of a lawyer

1. WHEN a youngster, I saw two New York City policemen enter a Lexington Avenue delicatessen, help themselves to canned goods, and leave without paying. The proprietor told me this was a frequent occurrence. Outraged, as only a teen-ager unfamiliar with the manifold injustices of the world can be, I went straight home to write a stiff letter to the police commissioner. Two weeks later the doorbell rang. There stood a uniformed officer from police headquarters. Albert, the elevator man, watched with fascination, not wishing to miss a detail of what he believed to be an imminent arrest. (There had been an unfortunate episode a few days earlier involving me, a friend, my air gun, and several neighbors.)

The officer asked for my father. I told him I was a posthumous child. He blinked. Things were becoming complex; a saucy, fatherless, juvenile complainant who writes letters to the police commissioner. In the living room the officer questioned me about the event, taking copious notes. Then he left to interview the store owner. Albert was disappointed to see him leave unaccompanied. The store owner denied the incident. In future, I thought, that man can stew in his own juice.

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The following evening, while I was at a dance, a second police officer arrived asking for ``Mr. Dean.'' This time, a horseless mounted policeman wearing high leather boots. Albert's hopes soared.

During this period I had been conducting an extensive correspondence, down to my last stamp, with government officials on various matters. One letter had gone to the commander of the mounted police suggesting that inexperienced horse riders not be allowed in Central Park where they were endangering people. In my absence, Mother entertained the officer, learning that the police have no jurisdiction over private stables renting horses.

Upon returning from the dance later that evening, I was forbidden to write any public official on any issue for the next 12 months. Two police visits in two nights were enough. What would the neighbors think!

Thus considerations of propriety won out over public policy considerations. My efforts to remake the world were necessarily suspended for a 12-month period, only to be resumed with renewed vigor following the conclusion of my probationary term.

2. IN some ways, practicing law appealed to me. There are no bosses, and the work is serious and concrete. X requires a contract by Y date. You draft the contract, get paid, and go on to the next matter. I enjoyed the collegiality of a law firm, assisting one's partners to unravel complex legal problems and having them do the same for you.

But there were things I disliked about being a lawyer. Commercial and real estate matters pay the rent and salaries, yet these are not fields where I have a particular contribution to make. Lawyers spend lots of time on minutiae. Litigation seldom brings out the best in anyone.

In part to compensate for the dryness I found in legal practice, the sense that I was doing something not quite suited for me, I became deeply involved in the civic life of New York City. Over the years I realized that I enjoyed my extracurricular activities more than my work. With the former, I felt these were matters that went with the grain, not against it. (This is a very personal judgment. Many lawyers derive genuine satisfaction from their work. We are all different people, with different interests and needs.)

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My dilemma became this: The desire to change my work ran smack against a reluctance to leave colleagues with whom I had long been associated; deeply ingrained habits; and fear of what change might bring.

For several years I hesitated. The problem seemed insoluble. From my reading I saw that others had agonized over their life's direction. Florence Nightingale used to ask, ``What is my business in this world?'' in her quest ``to seize the chance of forming for myself a true and rich life.'' Gauguin sought ``to work in a place which matches me on the inside.''

Then, out of the blue, a friend mentioned that an organization in New York City, with the goal of seeking greater involvement of the private bar in providing pro bono legal services to poor people, was looking for an executive director. One hundred law firms and corporate legal departments had committed themselves to the effort. The job seemed perfect: a convergence of my two careers, those of lawyer and civic participant. When offered the position, I accepted, and so resolved a problem that had long concerned me; namely, how to combine making a living with one's lifework.

Montaigne, following his service as a magistrate, wrote, ``What would I not do rather than read a contract.'' I, too, have bade farewell to contracts. My days are now spent on developing projects for volunteer lawyers to represent homeless families, children in foster care, poor people on housing matters, and AIDS patients.

A wider world has opened up for me. At a time when my city is beset with severe social problems, I am in a position to play a role in helping to address them: work, in my view, of the utmost importance.

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