Approximately one week ago, former South African Chief Justice, Arthur Chaskalson, passed away. Approximately six months ago, I had the privilege of sitting next this great man at dinner.
I had spent that entire morning, and some of the night before, wondering what I would ask him. Did I want to know about his experience as a white South African representing Nelson Mandela during apartheid? Did I want to know what kind of cases he saw as the first Chief Justice of the South African Constitutional Court? Did I want to know about his hobbies, favorite travel sites, food…?
In the end, I asked him what he was most proud of when he looked back on his life. His response shocked me – he never looked back.
All the attorneys I have ever known look back at their lives and especially at their professional lives. We do it to keep us going in a profession that media glorifies as little work for lots of money, but is often quite the opposite. We hold onto the cases that went well, that one client who we were actually able to help, the small improvements in the law that we had a hand in making. When I had the privilege of hearing Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law center, speak about his work, he began his talk with the case that keeps him going – the one that taught him about forgiveness.
How can an attorney wake up in the morning, knowing that his or her day is going to be full of problems and trying to find solutions for those problems…and knowing that a solution may or may not exist in the law? We do it because we look back, grab hold of that one inspiring memory, and we milk that memory for all of the motivation it can provide.
Arthur Chaskalson woke up every morning during his life facing some of the world’s worst horrors – apartheid, “necklacing,” AIDS, death, hunger… He faced them every day without leaning on the crutch of the past. At least not in the way the rest of his profession does. Justice Chaskalson did tell me he looks back at his life only when to remember the moment when he met his wife. He told me that, had anything gone even slightly different that day, he never would have met her.
Humanity lost a wonderful human being and a brilliant jurist in the passing of Justice Chaskalson. And at the same time, the impact that he had, even on the people who sat next to him at dinner one evening in June, will be carried by all of us into the future. The future – just where Justice Chaskalson liked to be.