Essay On My Ambition In Life As A Judge

Rick Rigsby – Make An Impact

In this passionate and life-changing speech, Dr. Rick Rigsby shares the three words that taught him how to enhance his life and make excellence a habit.


The wisest person I ever met in my life, a third-grade dropout. Wisest and dropout in the same sentence is rather oxymoronic, like jumbo shrimp. Like Fun Run, ain’t nothing fun about it, like Microsoft Works. You all don’t hear me. I used to say like country music, but I’ve lived in Texas so long, I love country music now. I hunt. I fish. I have cowboy boots and cowboy … You all, I’m a blackneck redneck. Do you hear what I’m saying to you? No longer oxymoronic for me to say country music, and it’s not oxymoronic for me to say third grade and dropout.

That third grade dropout, the wisest person I ever met in my life, who taught me to combine knowledge and wisdom to make an impact, was my father, a simple cook, wisest man I ever met in my life, just a simple cook, left school in the third grade to help out on the family farm, but just because he left school doesn’t mean his education stopped. Mark Twain once said, “I’ve never allowed my schooling to get in the way of my education.” My father taught himself how to read, taught himself how to write, decided in the midst of Jim Crowism, as America was breathing the last gasp of the Civil War, my father decided he was going to stand and be a man, not a black man, not a brown man, not a white man, but a man. He literally challenged himself to be the best that he could all the days of his life.

I have four degrees. My brother is a judge. We’re not the smartest ones in our family. It’s a third grade dropout daddy, a third grade dropout daddy who was quoting Michelangelo, saying to us boys, “I won’t have a problem if you aim high and miss, but I’m gonna have a real issue if you aim low and hit.” A country mother quoting Henry Ford, saying, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right.” I learned that from a third grade drop. Simple lessons, lessons like these. “Son, you’d rather be an hour early than a minute late.” We never knew what time it was at my house because the clocks were always ahead. My mother said, for nearly 30 years, my father left the house at 3:45 in the morning, one day, she asked him, “Why, Daddy?” He said, “Maybe one of my boys will catch me in the act of excellence.”

I want to share a few things with you. Aristotle said, “You are what you repeatedly do.” Therefore, excellence ought to be a habit, not an act. Don’t ever forget that. I know you’re tough. I know you’re seaworthy, but always remember to be kind, always. Don’t ever forget that. Never embarrass Mama. Mm-hmm (affirmative). If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. If Daddy ain’t happy, don’t nobody care, but I’m going to tell you.

Next lesson, lesson from a cook over there in the galley. “Son, make sure your servant’s towel is bigger than your ego.” I want to remind you cadets of something as you graduate. Ego is the anesthesia that deadens the pain of stupidity. You all might have a relative in mind you want to send that to. Let me say it again. Ego is the anesthesia that deadens the pain of stupidity. Pride is the burden of a foolish person.

John Wooden coached basketball at UCLA for a living, but his calling was to impact people, and with all those national championships, guess what he was found doing in the middle of the week? Going into the cupboard, grabbing a broom and sweeping his own gym floor. You want to make an impact? Find your broom. Every day of your life, you find your broom. You grow your influence that way. That way, you’re attracting people so that you can impact them.

Final lesson. “Son, if you’re going to do a job, do it right.” I’ve always been told how average I can be, always been criticized about being average, but I want to tell you something. I stand here before you before all of these people, not listening to those words, but telling myself every single day to shoot for the stars, to be the best that I can be. Good enough isn’t good enough if it can be better, and better isn’t good enough if it can be best.

Let me close with a very personal story that I think will bring all this into focus. Wisdom will come to you in the unlikeliest of sources, a lot of times through failure. When you hit rock bottom, remember this. While you’re struggling, rock bottom can also be a great foundation on which to build and on which to grow. I’m not worried that you’ll be successful. I’m worried that you won’t fail from time to time. The person that gets up off the canvas and keeps growing, that’s the person that will continue to grow their influence.

Back in the ’70s, to help me make this point, let me introduce you to someone. I met the finest woman I’d ever met in my life. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Back in my day, we’d have called her a brick house. This woman was the finest woman I’d ever seen in my life. There was just one little problem. Back then, ladies didn’t like big old linemen. The Blind Side hadn’t come out yet. They liked quarterbacks and running back. We’re at this dance, and I find out her name is Trina Williams from Lompoc, California. We’re all dancing and we’re just excited. I decide in the middle of dancing with her that I would ask her for her phone number. Trina was the first … Trina was the only woman in college who gave me her real telephone number.

The next day, we walked to Baskin and Robbins Ice Cream Parlor. My friends couldn’t believe it. This has been 40 years ago, and my friends still can’t believe it. We go on a second date and a third date and a fourth date. Mm-hmm (affirmative). We drive from Chico to Vallejo so that she can meet my parents. My father meets her. My daddy. My hero. He meets her, pulls me to the side and says, “Is she psycho?” Anyway, we go together for a year, two years, three years, four years. By now, Trina’s a senior in college. I’m still a freshman, but I’m working some things out. I’m so glad I graduated in four terms, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan.

Now, it’s time to propose, so I talk to her girlfriends, and it’s California. It’s in the ’70s, so it has to be outside, have to have a candle and you have to some chocolate. Listen, I’m from the hood. I had a bottle of Boone’s Farm wine. That’s what I had. She said, “Yes.” That was the key. I married the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my … You all ever been to a wedding and even before the wedding starts, you hear this? “How in the world?” It was coming from my side of the family. We get married. We have a few children. Our lives are great.

One day, Trina finds a lump in her left breast. Breast cancer. Six years after that diagnosis, me and my two little boys walked up to Mommy’s casket and, for two years, my heart didn’t beat. If it wasn’t for my faith in God, I wouldn’t be standing here today. If it wasn’t for those two little boys, there would have been no reason for which to go on. I was completely lost. That was rock bottom. You know what sustained me? The wisdom of a third grade dropout, the wisdom of a simple cook.

We’re at the casket. I’d never seen my dad cry, but this time I saw my dad cry. That was his daughter. Trina was his daughter, not his daughter-in-law, and I’m right behind my father about to see her for the last time on this Earth, and my father shared three words with me that changed my life right there at the casket. It would be the last lesson he would ever teach me. He said, “Son, just stand. You keep standing. You keep stand … No matter how rough the sea, you keep standing, and I’m not talking about just water. You keep standing. No matter what. You don’t give up.” I learned that lesson from a third grade dropout, and as clearly as I’m talking to you today, these were some of her last words to me. She looked me in the eye and she said, “It doesn’t matter to me any longer how long I live. What matters to me most is how I live.”

I ask you all one question, a question that I was asked all my life by a third grade dropout. How you living? How you living? Every day, ask yourself that question. How you living? Here’s what a cook would suggest you to live, this way, that you would not judge, that you would show up early, that you’d be kind, that you make sure that that servant’s towel is huge and used, that if you’re going to do something, you do it the right way. That cook would tell you this, that it’s never wrong to do the right thing, that how you do anything is how you do everything, and in that way, you will grow your influence to make an impact. In that way, you will honor all those who have gone before you who have invested in you. Look in those unlikeliest places for wisdom. Enhance your life every day by seeking that wisdom and asking yourself every night, “How am I living?” May God richly bless you all. Thank you for having me here.

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Cover Story

Why I Love Being a Lawyer

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Photo illustration by Nilsz

We’ve all seen the downbeat headlines—surveys show as many as half of all lawyers wouldn’t enter the profession if they had it to do over, wouldn’t recommend their children become lawyers, would rather be digging ditches or breaking rocks. As the profession struggles to recover from the Great Recession, it’s certainly not easy being an attorney.

But what about the other half of the profession—the half that doesn’t grab the headlines, that finds satisfaction in their jobs? There’s still much to recommend the practice of law, starting with serving clients and the public good. This story is a valentine to the profession, reminding us—in the words of ordinary lawyers from across the nation—why being a lawyer can be an extraordinary calling.

Plus:New ABA Journal Section Debuts in March

I knew nothing about criminal law and said as much to a California federal court judge who wanted to appoint me to represent a woman facing forgery charges. I was a business and tax attorney in court that day for a calendar call. The judge saw my name on a pleading and appointed me.

The woman was about to plead guilty to 22 counts of forging signatures on Social Security checks. Her hearing was scheduled for 2 p.m. The judge told me to educate myself and if I needed more time, he could continue the case for a week.

I introduced myself to the defendant. She told me that she was guilty, and I asked her why she had forged the checks. “Because he told me to” was her answer. The “he” turned out to be the woman’s husband, a Social Security recipient who was hospitalized in Texas. She handed me a letter her husband had written directing her to sign the checks and deposit them in their bank account.

Relying on what I learned in bills and notes class, I told her that an authorized signature wasn’t forgery. At the 2 p.m. hearing I moved to vacate the woman’s plea, offering her husband’s letter as evidence. The government acquiesced and the case was dismissed.

It was at that precise moment of dismissal that I realized being a lawyer was about helping people who needed help. And I felt that I had found my calling in life.

Jay Foonberg
Beverly Hills, Calif.

Photo by Thinkstock Images

I love being a lawyer because when I stand up before a jury and thank my clients for the privilege of representing them (and I usually feel pretty emotional whenever I say that, with chills) I realize I am being trusted to pre sent them, what they feel, what they believe. And I take that very seriously.

Anthony Minchella
Middlebury, Conn.

What I like about being a lawyer: being self-employed.

I feel so much more adult. No one writes me up if I get caught in traffic and walk in the door 15 seconds late in my own office. I don’t have to ask if I can change my lunch time. I get to sit by the window, and if I want vacation time I can just plan it without having to ask the boss.

Diane Stamler Oraif
Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Best job in the world: I get paid to read, write, think, talk and argue—all things I would do anyway.

Rick Ball

I love being a lawyer because I can make a difference in someone’s life. I help people live debt-free. I’ve had clients tell me it’s changed their life for the better, that they can sleep at night and stop fighting with their spouse about money. How awesome is that?

Jeena Cho
San Francisco

Being a lawyer is the quintessential culmination of my previous work experience at shoveling horse manure, herding stubborn animals, sitting on my brains all day as an over-the-road truck driver, and putting together foolproof solutions as a software engineer—only to discover a new and improved fool. The fun part about being a lawyer is meeting other lawyers who have suffered even more than I have.

Why do I love being a lawyer? Because, once in a while, you get the opportunity to help someone who desperately needs your help. It feels good to be that person.

D.A. “Duke” Drouillard
Omaha, Neb.

I love the creativity involved with handling virtually every case or matter. Law is a thinking profession, not just a doing job.

Shell Bleiweiss

When I was an assistant state’s attorney in Cook County and first assigned to handle felonies, I was given a dog of a case with stale evidence. The case involved a rape in a Chicago neighborhood known for prostitution. For various reasons the police had not worked up the case with the fervor of most serious criminal cases.

The victim claimed she had been raped by a taxicab driver who, after she got into his cab, drove into an alley, pulled up next to the wall and locked the doors— which had no inside handles. She claimed that he then slithered between bucket seats and, using a knife to threaten her, sexually assaulted her.

This rape in question occurred in the mid-1980s, and taxicabs with bucket seats were rare at the time. My trial partner and I investigated the case, and we found three men who witnessed the victim walking away naked from the alley wrapped only in a trash bag. She was bruised, crying and traumatized. We verified the taxi with bucket seats. At trial, we admitted into evidence a knife that was found at the scene of the defendant’s arrest.

As it turned out, one juror convinced the 11 others that my partner and I had not proven our case because we had failed to provide fingerprints on the knife.

Feeling defeated, my partner and I turned to the victim with our sincerest apologies. But she wasn’t upset. She hugged us both and thanked us profusely for believing in her and for fighting as hard as we had.

I knew then that I loved being a lawyer. I loved protecting people in a court of law. I loved the feeling of accomplishment I get from helping others fight—win or lose.

Patricia Brown Holmes

Photo by Ferdinand Daniel

I get to think through problems every day for people I really like.

Lisa Babcock
East Lansing, Mich.

I love being a lawyer because it gives me the opportunity to use the law to make someone’s life better. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” it affords me a chance to accommodate my contrarian nature by confronting those who think they understand my duty better than I. I could not ask for more.

Joseph J. Levin Jr.
Montgomery, Ala.

One thing I love about being a lawyer is beating up on bad guys. And I take the biblical injunction to “protect widows and orphans” seriously.

I’ve had several cases where elderly people were duped into signing over deeds to their houses to relatives. One involved a recent widower who was blind. A relative took the man to the bank on the pretense of helping him get his bank accounts in order after his wife’s death.

A couple of weeks later the widower’s step-granddaughter came by his house and asked, “Pops, why’s there a ‘for sale’ sign on your front lawn?”

Because the gentleman was blind, he was unaware of the for-sale sign. But the man soon learned that his relative had tricked him into signing a quitclaim deed for the property. The relative promptly recorded the deed and then contracted with a real estate agent to sell the house without the client knowing.

I filed suit, served the step-grandson and was able to strong-arm him into signing the deed back to the grandparent. There’s nothing like being served a complaint and being told you have 20 days to file a response. What can they say? “I tricked Grandpa into giving his house to me, and I should be able to keep it because I’m so smart and my grandfather trusted me?”

Ronald Jones
Summerfield, Fla.

America is a society based on law and justice. I love the fact that I have a role in making this ideal a reality, however small.

Richard Granat
Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

I love that the law never sleeps and doesn’t require that all be done 9 to 5.

I could spend the morning as an attorney guardian ad litem representing kids who were in foster care, the afternoon as a mom with my kids and then the evening into the wee hours of the morning tackling esoteric legal issues arising from complex commercial litigation.

Jennifer Schrack Dempsey
Boise, Idaho

What I love the most about being a lawyer is freedom. In 35 years, I have had three different careers in law, and even within those careers, I have been free to pursue my own professional desires.

Lee Nation
Prescott, Ariz.

My first job was doing collections, and I took to it like a duck takes to water. If someone doesn’t have the money to pay their debt in full, I work hard to resolve the situation to everyone’s satisfaction. If someone does have the money and is trying to hide it, it’s the art of getting the money and being creative that makes this job fun. I enjoy the fine art of garnishment, and I don’t mean food preparation.

Robert Markoff

I knew I was extremely glad I was a lawyer on Dec. 10, 2009. That day the Inter-American Court of Human Rights sanctioned the nation of Mexico for the torture and killing of women in Ciudad Juárez in what has become known as the “cotton field case.” It was the first time that the Mexican government was held accountable for not offering guarantees to protect the lives and physical well-being of these women. The court’s decision was groundbreaking because its context was based on gender violence. I filed a brief pro bono on behalf of Amnesty International and more than 50 other human rights organizations. The court referred to my amicus brief in its decision. The decision turned out to be one of the most important international women’s rights decisions in decades. The case also reinforced the importance of the rule of law and of standing up for what is right, just, fair and humane, even if you are not sure whether what you are doing will actually result in any change at all. I remember thinking that I could retire after this decision and still have had a completely satisfying legal career.

Mary-Christine Sungaila
Costa Mesa, Calif.

I was a practicing civil attorney for 57 years. I loved my profession because it gave me an opportunity to be of service. I always asked myself one question:What can I do to help the client? What advice can I provide that will be of some benefit? If you provide real and meaningful legal services, you will be properly compensated. I enjoyed every day and pursued my work with passion.

Dempsey Prappas

When I opened my first-year property law casebook and read the first case, I knew right then that I had made the right decision to become a lawyer. I still have that same feeling of excitement whenever I sit down to read a brief or an opinion of the Supreme Court. I just find the intellectual side of the law deeply satisfying. Add to that a chance to help clients solve very difficult problems and to argue before the Supreme Court on a regular basis, and I often have to pinch myself to convince me it is real.

Carter Phillips
Washington, D.C.

What I love most about being a lawyer is that it never has to be boring. As a lawyer, you always have the opportunity to redesign your practice to accomplish different goals. In 30 years of practice I have seen the way in which law is practiced change radically and rapidly. I hope it keeps on changing.

Howard Finkelstein
Brooklyn, N.Y.


New ABA Journal Section Debuts in March

Your ABA Journal, at the request of ABA leadership, is undertaking an initiative to recognize and highlight the service of lawyers who volunteer for the benefit of their communities. Every day, lawyers contribute their time, energy and expertise to help individuals and nonprofit organizations.

Our goal is to showcase this dedicated service that often gets little attention, and we’re asking for your assistance.

We invite you to send photographs of lawyers you know who contribute volunteer service to others. If selected, your photograph(s) will be featured in the ABA Journal’s monthly segment, “Lawyers Giving Back.” Photos should include your name and those of the lawyer(s) involved, a short description of the service or project, and where it takes place. We particularly ask that photos showcase lawyers in action volunteering on service-oriented projects.

Our new feature on volunteers will debut in the March 2011 edition of the ABA Journal. Please e-mail your photos and descriptions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Volunteering is an essential part of American culture. It plays a significant role in who we are as a nation, and defines who we are as lawyers. We look forward to hearing from you!

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