In the nearly 24 years that I’ve been practicing law, I’ve been fortunate enough to receive some accolades from my colleagues. A number of these have been for a commitment to legal ethics and improving professionalism. I look at it as giving something back to the profession that’s given so much to me.
Many of the most important lessons I learned began at the University of Texas School of Law, where so many of the subjects I took were taught by the giants of their respective fields. To name just a few, I learned constitutional law from the great Charles Alan Wright (of Wright & Miller on Federal Courts), and I learned the intricacies of civil procedure from Michael Tigar, one of the preeminent trial lawyers of the last 50 years.
And my teacher for professional responsibility — legal ethics — was John F. Sutton Jr., who literally wrote the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct — the bible of an attorney’s professional duties that have been adopted by virtually every state in the union.
Dean Sutton passed away on April 19, 2013, at the ripe old age of 95. He is survived by his wife of 72 years, Nancy, as well as a son and daughter, four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. But he is also survived by a rich legacy—not only the many students he taught over the years, but the legacy he left as a scholar and as an architect of the very tenets by which the legal profession is governed.
John Sutton was raised in San Angelo, the son of a district court judge who was also a rancher. He inherited a love of the law as well as a love of ranching and agriculture.
Although he lacked an undergraduate degree (law school standards were different then), John entered the University of Texas School of Law, where he excelled and received his degree with honors in 1941.
After briefly practicing law, with the outbreak of World War II he became a Special Agent with the FBI. After the war, and during the Korean War, John served with the U.S. Army Reserve as a judge advocate general. From 1950 to 1957, he was in private practice.
In 1957, legal academia beckoned, and John became a full professor at UT Law School. He would go on to teach there for 46 years, retiring in 2003 at the age of 85.
From 1979 to 1985, he also served as dean. He was an accomplished scholar, writing law review articles and co-authoring textbooks on professional responsibility as well as on evidence.
However, his greatest gift to the legal profession was working with the American Bar Association in drafting the ABA Model Code of Professional Responsibility, a task which began in 1965 and lasted until 1970. At the time, the ethical guidelines for lawyers hadn’t been updated since 1908—and the profession had, to put it mildly, changed quite a bit since then.
A few years later, his work would culminate in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which replaced the Model Code of Professional Responsibility.
A titan among legal ethics scholars, John served for years on the ABA’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility and on the State Bar of Texas Professional Ethics Committee (including several stints as chairman). Even at the age of 90, he was serving on the State Bar’s Standing Committee on Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.
The honors and accolades bestowed upon John Sutton would fill several articles, and they are just a small part of the rich legacy he leaves. His name lives on in the endowed presidential scholarship that bears his name, in the Dean John F. Sutton Jr. Chair in Lawyering and the Legal Process, and in the law society at UT that was named after him in 2004.
His friends and family (including son John E. Sutton and a grandson who are both UT Law School graduates as well) form much more of the lasting legacy of Dean Sutton. His wife, Nancy Ewing Sutton, was his law school classmate and one-time law partner.
But the part of Dean Sutton’s legacy that I know best was that of a genuinely caring, dedicated teacher who gave the subject of professional responsibility meaning and resonance.
As his son puts it, “What set Dad apart as a teacher was he . . . had some real world life experiences that he loved to share, he made things come alive. He gave the law relevance.”
To this day, whether I am serving clients as an advocate or trying to serve the profession as a writer and teacher, I continue to be guided by what I learned as one of John F. Sutton’s many students.
In the classroom, he wasn’t the intellectually intimidating legal scholar whose name was on my textbook. He eschewed abstract theory, instead reminding us, above all else, to do what was right because our actions would impact real people.
Thank you, Dean Sutton.