Legally Speaking: Tales of Inspiration

John G. Browning Jun. 3, 2008, 7:12am

Every now and then, I'll receive a chiding e-mail or comment from a reader, asking why so many of my columns have focused on what's wrong with the legal profession or on outrageous lawsuits or decisions.

Since this kind of reaction usually comes from other lawyers who seemed a tad oversensitive about how lawyers come across in the media, and since my career aspirations don't involve channeling Oprah and providing readers with gushy stories about true life victories over adversity, I take such criticism with a grain of salt.

But every now and then, I encounter an individual whose story helps me shed – however momentarily – my cynicism.

The first such person is Isaac Lidsky. Isaac may be a graduate of Harvard (undergraduate and law school), but he is perhaps best known to the public for having played the nerdy character Weasel on the television show "Saved By the Bell: The New Class."

While alumni of its predecessor children's program "Saved By the Bell" were leaving their mark on the entertainment world by pole-dancing as a Vegas stripper (Elizabeth Berkeley, in the disastrous "Showgirls") or cavorting on "Dancing With the Stars" (Mario Lopez), Isaac Lidsky was studying hard in school. Isaac had to work even harder than most, because he was losing his sight as a result of his battle with the degenerative eye disease retinis pigmentosa (RP).

This July, Isaac will become the first blind clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court, having received the highly coveted clerkship to work for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (although retired, Justice O'Connor continues to hear cases, sitting by designation on federal appeals courts).

It didn't come easily either. Lidsky applied four times, and was also recommended by another federal appellate judge before getting the prized position. In addition to clerking for Justice O'Connor, Lidsky will also be assigned to another justice to assist with screening of cases and drafting of opinions.

After his one year clerkship is over, Lidsky will join one of the nation's largest law firms, Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, as an associate (previously, he worked in the Justice Department as a prosecutor).

The actor-turned-lawyer uses optical character recognition software, which reads aloud scanned pages to him. As he describes it, "I can listen to things as fast as people can read them."

Lidsky had an unexpected mentor along the way: Judge David Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Judge Tatel, who also suffers from RP, counseled Lidsky on ways to adjust to the challenges of handling reading-intensive work. Lidsky describes Judge Tatel as "beyond inspirational."

But Lidsky himself is an inspiration for more than just his individual accomplishments. He hopes to help others with visual impairments, and toward that goal has started the Hope for Vision Foundation, which raises awareness of blindness and eye diseases and promotes research into potential cures.

Isaac Lidsky has already overcome long odds; let's hope he continues to open the eyes of others to the devastating disease of RP.

Another person who recently helped reaffirm my faith in humanity is Fort Bend County Justice of the Peace Gary Geick. In his 20 years on the bench for Precinct 1, Place 2, Judge Geick has chosen not to consider eviction requests during the Christmas season.

During his first year as a judge, Geick was moved by the experience of having to order a family evicted a day or two before Christmas. He recalls the children sobbing and asking their parents if their Christmas presents would be taken, too.

"That just tears me up, stuff like that. I guess I'm just an old softy when it comes to Christmas," the judge says.

Ever since, Judge Geick maintained a policy of not accepting eviction filings in late December.

That policy got him in hot water with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. In late May, the Commission publicly admonished Judge Geick, ruling that he had failed to comply with the law and demonstrated a lack of professional competence in the law.

In its opinion, the Commission wrote "Although Judge Geick may have had good intentions for creating this policy, the commission found no statutory or other legal authority that would allow a judge to simply refuse to accept cases for filing over which his court has jurisdiction and venue."

Judge Geick has since instructed his staff to accept all eviction cases from now on regardless of when they are filed, bringing an end to his longstanding practice. But a defiant twinkle remains in his eye.

Noting that there's no law requiring him to give up his annual late December vacation/hunting trip, Judge Geick warns not to look for him on the bench that time of year. "I've changed the policy. But they're not going to make me stop going deer hunting," the justice of the peace says.

My final tale of inspiration revolves around another recent law school graduate who overcame adversity. Twenty-four year-old Rasheedah Phillips graduated this May from Temple University's Beasley School of Law in Philadelphia.

But while for many that walk across the stage to accept a diploma is but a few footsteps, for Rasheedah it was the culmination of a marathon journey that began in the ninth grade. That year, Rasheedah became pregnant. She left school for six months, and after giving birth suffered from depression. Even after returning to school, her grades plummeted.

It would have been easy for Rasheedah Phillips to become just another statistic; after all, a Philadelphia School District study of its class of 2000 revealed that 68 percent of the 1,262 girls who had a child within four years of starting high school dropped out.

But with the help of a program called Teen ELECT (Education Leading to Employment and Career Training) at Lincoln High School and through dogged determination, Rasheedah Phillips defied the odds. Working part-time jobs to support her daughter and plunging herself into her schoolwork, Rasheedah graduated from Lincoln in 2002 with honors. She also received a $4,500 scholarship awarded to the outstanding senior in the school's career academies; Rasheedah put that money toward Temple University.

It wasn't easy being the only undergraduate student living in campus housing with a child. Rasheedah and her daughter shared a small one-bedroom apartment. With the father of her child not in her life, Rasheedah obtained help with child care from her mother and her daughter's paternal grandmother.

As in high school, Rasheedah let nothing stand in her way. In just three years, she graduated summa cum laude from Temple with a degree in criminal justice and a 3.8 grade point average.

Inspired by her story, which was chronicled in the Philadelphia Inquirer as well as in a book on teen pregnancy (It Couldn't Happen to Me: Three True Stories of Teenage Moms), people reading about Rasheedah sent donations and words of encouragement. One anonymous donor even created a scholarship that would cover Rasheedah's entire law school tuition – an estimated tab of $45,660 for three years.

Despite the financial support she received, law school at Temple presented its own set of challenges. Being African-American in a school where only 7 percent of the law students were black, and being a single parent from a low-income household, "I really felt like I didn't fit in," says Rasheedah.

JoAnne A. Epps, Temple's incoming law school dean and a professor who taught Rasheedah in two classes, is also African-American and empathizes with her experience. As a student at Yale Law School in the 1970s, Dean Epps also contended with a lack of diversity and a struggle to belong in a student body largely populated with the children of wealthy families.

"I give her credit for recognizing the setting and thriving despite the differences," Dean Epps says, crediting Rasheedah's "very scrappy, up-from-the-bootstraps practical and yet thoughtful approach to legal issues."

Besides simply fitting in, and contending with the academic pressure cooker that is law school (she finished with a "C" average), Rasheedah faced other challenges. Seeking safe, affordable places where she and her daughter could live, Rasheedah moved regularly to escape neighborhoods that became too drug- and crime-infested.

Her persistence and hard work paid off, and Rasheedah received her J.D. degree this May, along with the school's Henry Kent Anderson Human Services Award, given to a student whose work has demonstrated "a concern for the victims of society's inequities."

In keeping with that recognition and adversity she's had to overcome, don't look for Rasheedah Phillips to go into the lucrative world of corporate law. Instead, she accepted a $46,000 a year job with Community Legal Services, where she will work in the family advocacy unit assisting parents with child welfare issues.

Rasheedah explained her desire to practice public interest law at a diversity summit held by the Pennsylvania Bar Association. Although her law degree offered her "infinite possibilities," Rasheedah told the audience that her experiences and "interconnectedness to other humans…forces me to attempt to improve our lot."

According to Sarah Katz, who will be supervising Rasheedah at Community Legal Services, "Her greatest strength is her ability to identify with our clients, given her own experience in the world."

Even before graduating, Rasheedah Phillips was giving back. Working with the Children's Aid Society and Teen ELECT students from other Philadelphia high schools, Rasheedah helped students with essays and college applications, and also gave teen mothers calendars and tips on budgeting their time.

Typical among the lives touched by Rasheedah is Glenicesha Langley. Inspired by working with Rasheedah, the 17-year-old Langley (who has a 3-year-old daughter) will be studying information technology at Drexel University this fall. Of Rasheedah, Langley says "She motivated me to want to stay in school. I feel as if I can still become something in life."

It's been a long journey indeed for Rasheedah Phillips, and maybe the most meaningful steps were those last few across a stage in May at law school graduation, because accompanying Rasheedah as she took those steps to receive her diploma was her 9-year-old daughter, Iyonna.

John Browning is a partner in the Dallas office of Gordon & Rees, LLP. He may be contacted at:

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