By Thomas Barnard, 2019 IndyBar President, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP
My wife and I recently traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend our nephew’s law school graduation. Of the many remarkable memories we brought back to Indianapolis were words spoken by a graduating business student. Lucila Takjerad was born in Algeria and lived with her parents in dire poverty — no running water or electricity, struggling each day to stay alive amidst a raging civil war in 1994. In an effort to offer a wartime escape to a few select Algerians, France announced a lottery for limited emigration to France. All you had to do to enter the lottery was sign your name to the official “paper.” When Lucila’s mother heard this and approached the “paper,” she turned away without signing. She was illiterate. She couldn’t even sign her name in order to potentially save her family. As she walked away, a man who had witnessed this approached her, offered to help and signed her name to the “paper.” Several months later, Lucila and her family were on a boat headed to France. She was just 10 years old, but already starting a new life in a new country. Her journey led her to become the first in her family to graduate from college, and she ultimately earned her master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School this May.
Lucila’s message was basically this: she never met and can never properly thank the man who simply signed her mother’s name, but he changed her and her family’s life in a remarkable way. He likely has no idea of the magnitude of his small kindly gesture and will never know. A common response to such small gestures of help is, “well, it’s the least I could do.” Lucila stressed that we should each ask ourselves, “What is the least I could do for someone today?” We don’t have to move mountains to have a momentous impact on another’s life.
I’ve always been fascinated by the law of unknown consequences. Books have been written and movies have been made about the dominos that fall after some seemingly random act. But most of these stories are negative. We focus less on the positive, perhaps because we hear less about it. Yet I would argue that we have overlooked one of the most important aspects of human existence — the positive impact we can have on others whom we may never see again. For example, when you stop to jump-start a stranger’s car, you’ll probably never see them again, never know if you kept them from losing a job or missing an interview, or just planted a seed for some favor they will bestow down the road.
The IndyBar offers attorneys many opportunities to “do the least that you can do.” By that, I mean that you have many ways to encourage, influence and open doors for other attorneys through attendance at events, seminars or committee meetings. Several years ago, Chris Hickey, Eric Engebretson and several other IndyBar Board members made a point of reaching out to new members, meeting them for coffee and offering to serve as mentors as they began new careers or transitioned to a new practice here in Indianapolis. Our HEAL Committee (Helping Enrich Attorneys’ Lives) offers comfort, food, services and other assistance to attorneys who have suffered loss of a family member, serious illnesses, or other significant disruptive and emotional events. The IndyBar Law Student Outreach Committee is currently studying the impact of student loans on our members, identifying specific needs and services that can be provided and serving as an outlet and collection point for graduating students’ worries and concerns. These are just a few of the many services the IndyBar provides.
Like the man in Algeria who signed the mother’s name, these IndyBar members may never know the impact of their efforts. The impacts play out over time in unpredictable ways. Yet the beauty of these efforts is just that — we offer assistance, advice and comfort with no expectation for immediate payback. We do it because we can. We do it because it is the right thing to do. We do it because others have done it for us. We do it as part of our professional pride. When we do the “least we can do,” the effort and results can be disproportional, just as they were in Algeria. Our small gestures may not lead an impoverished young girl to ultimately graduate from Harvard, but they might be just what that person or that family needed at that point in time, and the ripple of goodwill extends to the horizon.