Legally Speaking: A Father's Lessons

John G. Browning Jun. 20, 2011, 3:00pm

On a large bulletin board in the crowded hallway of one of the courthouses in Bexar County, Texas, there is what I refer to as the "Monument to the Unknown Father."

It consists of public notices about a whole host of paternity, custody, and child support orders directed toward fathers who have simply disappeared and cannot be served through more conventional means - their last known address is no good or unknown, and service by public notice is the last resort in informing them about the family law proceeding in which they were named.

As I looked over the long stretch of notices, I couldn't help but think of the children who would grow up without a father in their lives. Not only would such children lack a source of tangible financial support, but chances were good that they'd also miss out on a crucial part of knowing their own identity and learning many of life's lessons. On another wall, years ago in a museum and cultural center in Ireland, I had seen a sign inscribed with a bit of Irish wisdom; it read "Cuimhnigi ar na daoine a dtainigh sibh uathu," a Gaelic saying that means "Remember the people you came from."

This Father's Day, I remember the people I came from, particularly my father Walter W. Browning, Jr. I won't go into how I'm a better person because of the lessons learned from my father; although that's certainly true, in keeping with the spirit of this column I'll focus instead on how what my father taught me made me a better lawyer. For a lot of lawyers, we find our moral touchstone in the iconic character of Atticus Finch from Harper Lee's book and film To Kill a Mockingbird. In many ways, my father was my Atticus Finch, despite the fact that he's not a lawyer.

My dad was a pharmacist. He considered it more than just a way of paying the mortgage and putting food on the table. To him it was a noble calling, one in which you should help the sick or infirm, unsullied by the sidelines of selling candy or greeting cards. In his perspective, people were patients rather than customers, individuals rather than the numbers they would have been to a large chain pharmacy. In his independently-owned corner apothecary, he greeted them by name, asked about their families and jobs, and spent large chunks of his time patiently answering their myriad health questions. At times, this frustrated me; I'd point out to my father how many people came in without buying anything or even getting a prescription filled, only to take up his time getting medical advice for which a doctor would charge dearly.

On each of these occasions, he would simply smile and patiently tell me, "It's not about the money, Johnny." Illness and injury scare people, he told me; when they strike, people have questions and they need reassurance. To this day, when the pimply-faced kid (with the grandiose title "pharmacy technician," no less) at the pharmacy I go to (because it's conveniently located within our supermarket) shoves my prescription at me and asks me to check the box marked "Declined Counseling," I have to laugh. Many of the people working in pharmacies today don't know the meaning of patient counseling.

Yes, my father taught me that my meter doesn't always have to be on, and that there are things more important than money. Because people don't get sick or go to the hospital just during normal working hours, he kept his pharmacy open 7 days a week, until midnight every night - he was even open Christmas morning (a source of considerable frustration for me and my siblings as we impatiently waited to open presents).

He carried people when they couldn't afford to pay, even when some of these very same people would make the fickle decision to go to one of the chain pharmacies because they charged a nickel less. Frequently, his late night customers were people who normally got their prescriptions filled somewhere else but which wasn't open. When I would deliver a prescription (or an oxygen tank, or a hospital bed) to a patient who was behind on their bills, my father would again remind me that it wasn't always about the money.

His words have come back to guide me in every pro bono case I've taken on. When I've volunteered at a legal aid clinic, staffed a telephone hotline, or represented members of the armed forces and their families in civil litigation, I remember that "it's not always about the money."

When a sergeant getting ready to ship out overseas told me that his allotment would barely cover the household bills for his wife and daughter, and he couldn't really afford to either fight or settle the lawsuit his family was facing, I found my father's words coming out of my mouth - "It's not about the money." He answered the call to defend our country, I reasoned; what kind of lawyer would I be if I didn't defend him and his family?

My father, the non-lawyer, taught me more than just the importance of serving the underserved and the indigent. He also imparted to me the importance of knowing your craft. On a number of occasions, he would correct a prescribing doctor about an incorrect dosage or a drug that was contra-indicated; I'm sure he saved a few lives (and medical careers) in his time. My dad was zealous about his continuing education hours and keeping up with professional journals. To this day, when I err on the side of being overly prepared for court, or when I find the brand new court decision that was just handed down and could make the difference in my case, I know I am my father's son.

He also stressed the importance of giving back to one's profession and community. My dad was a sought-after speaker who gave of his time to teach and consult about narcotics for local law enforcement, drug task forces, state police academies, and even the DEA. Yet he did so with humility. A state trooper who pulled him over to give him a ticket once sheepishly realized my father had been one of his instructors, and gave him the "pass" that my dad never would have demanded for himself.

Because of my father's example of giving back, I find myself boarding planes or taking long drives to speak to audiences of government attorneys, judges, lawyers in private practice, and even elementary students as part of a "law in the schools" initiative. I serve on state and local bar committees, because my dad instilled in me the importance of giving back to a profession that has given so much to me.

This month, within days of Father's Day, my dad will turn 84 years old. He's part of the "Greatest Generation" that fought a world war against global tyranny and returned to build America into the giant it is today, a generation that we are losing at an alarming rate. I didn't grow up with lawyers in the family, and my father didn't exactly encourage me to go to law school.

Yet the example he set of being, like Atticus Finch, "the same in his house as he is on the public streets," and the lessons he taught (it's not always about the money; put the client's needs first; know your craft, give back to the profession and the community) made me a better lawyer. In keeping with the spirit of the Gaelic saying, I try to remember the people I came from.

Happy Father's Day.

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