U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine shared what his first clients taught him as a lawyer about empathy, insight and compassion in his address at W&M Law School's May 15 diploma ceremony.
Kaine, who served as mayor of Richmond, as lieutenant governor and as governor of Virginia before his election to the Senate in 2012, spoke to the approximately 250 J.D. and LL.M. graduates who gathered with friends and family members for the ceremony at the Martha Wren Briggs Amphitheatre at Lake Matoaka.
He said that when he began to think about his speech, he found his mind returning to the time in his life when he was starting out as the graduates were "on an exciting, new and uncertain path to practice law." After his graduation and a federal clerkship, Kaine took the Virginia bar exam, moved to Richmond, got married and started to practice "all in the space of four months."
"It was a time of huge transition," he said, "and despite all my undergraduate and legal education I still had so much to learn, and so do you."
Kaine worked with hundreds of clients during the 18 years he had an active law practice.
"But you'll never forget your first clients," he said, "those who come to you when you have barely hung your law license on your office wall."
He shared the stories of three such clients who impacted his perspective and predicted that the graduates also would have clients who transformed the way they viewed the world.
"They changed me as a lawyer," he said. "They changed me as a person, and they will change you, too."
He drafted his first lawsuit for Lorraine. He and his client shared many similarities: both were 20-something young adults just starting out on their professional lives. Yet her early experience in the city was negative, while his had been positive. Kaine represented her in an action against a landlord who did not want to rent an apartment to her because she was African-American.
As he listened to her talk about the experience, he "understood a few things in a way that [he] had never understood before." Being thwarted from living from where you want to live, as Lorraine had, "cuts to the very core of your person." Discrimination can also leave an invisible scar.
"Once you have experienced [discrimination] the way Lorraine had," he said, "it is hard to escape the memory, and, maybe more importantly, it is really hard to shed the worry that it might happen again."
Several months later, he represented Dianne. He successfully fought a suit by her guardian to annul Dianne's marriage to James on the grounds that she did not have sufficient mental capacity to marry. Kaine, a newlywed himself, realized that the survival of the couple's marriage depended completely on his actions, a potent lesson in the "awesome responsibility of what it is to have a law license."
The case also taught him a lesson that he has found useful in law and in life: "Whatever the issue seems to be at first, you have to look deeper." While working on the case, he discovered the guardian's suit was prompted by greed: She had been stealing Dianne's disability checks, and a marriage would extinguish that income.
"What started off as a domestic marriage case," Kaine recalled, "ended up as a criminal trial against the guardian in a federal court where I had to testify."
Kaine concluded his remarks by describing his experience with Rick, a man who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Rick's volunteer lawyer had moved out of state shortly before a scheduled hearing on his case before the state Supreme Court. Someone approached Kaine and asked if he would assume Rick's representation but he was initially reluctant to do so.
"I was very tempted to beg off on the grounds that Rick was a bad person, or I was too new to the bar, or there were no issues in the case likely to succeed, or that taking the case might be really unpopular with my colleagues, or my firm, or others," he said.
However, his belief that anyone facing death is entitled to counsel compelled him to put those doubts aside. Kaine worked on the case on a pro bono basis for more than two years, and his initial hunch proved correct: "There were no legal issues that were ultimately going to get [Rick] a new sentencing or new trial."
On the day of his client's execution, he waited outside his cell so he would not be alone in the hours before his death. Among the lessons the case taught Kaine is "that an important part of being fully human is just being able to accompany somebody, even in painful and difficult times."