LEADERSHIP IN LAW 2022: Seth Lahn

(IL photo/Eric Learned)

Indiana University Maurer School of Law
Yale Law School, 1982

Why did you decide to enter the legal profession?

I grew up and started to become aware of the world during a time (the 1960s and early 70s) when lawyers were often in the middle of the political and social change that defined that era: the civil rights and anti-war movements; Senate debates over the composition of the Supreme Court (the Fortas, Haynsworth and Carswell appointments); the Watergate hearings. So being a lawyer looked like a way both to make an impact and be at the center of the action — maybe it even seemed a little glamorous.

During my first few weeks of college in Washington, D.C., I more or less stumbled into an internship, and later a junior staff job, in the office of U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh — that was actually my original connection to Indiana. My role in that office was, to put it mildly, a modest one — to give you some idea, I was the guy responsible for replenishing the ink in the mimeograph machine (for those who can remember what one of those was) as well as running off the press releases and then delivering them to the press galleries. But it gave me a close-up look at some interesting events. Sen. Bayh was the chair of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, and a lot of the issues the senator was involved with centered around the legal system. He had been a major backer of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the day we learned that Indiana ratified the ERA was memorable. I admired both the senator and a lot of the lawyers on his staff (Tom Connaughton, David Rubenstein, Nels Ackerson, among others) and that experience probably helped push me further toward law school.

On a more prosaic level: When I was young, I was often wearily told by adults, “You ought to be a lawyer.” It was their way of saying, “You talk too much” and, “Quit being so argumentative,” but I took it to heart.

If you hadn’t pursued a legal career, what would you be doing?

Wow — that’s a tough one. I’d like to be able to say “Nobel-winning scientist” or “professional tennis player.” But the truth is that I’m not sure that I could make a living at anything that didn’t rely mostly on moving around words. I’ve always thought that a lot of journalists, print and otherwise, lead interesting lives and ultimately make people’s lives better — so maybe something in that field.

Who is someone who has inspired you in your career?

I happened to grow up a few blocks from the campus of the University of Connecticut School of Law and, as a young person, got to know the dean of that law school, Howard Sacks, a little (he was the father of a friend.) Dean Sacks was an incredibly impressive person: a WWII Army veteran, an advocate for legal services and clinical legal education, and a brilliant teacher, lawyer and public servant who held himself and others to very high standards while always carrying himself with humility and good humor. For me, he was a model of what an engaged and humane lawyer and educator can be, and the fact that he took any interest in the thoughts or ambitions of a not-particularly-promising teenager gave me some confidence at an important time.

Another law dean who I’ve admired has been professor Lauren Robel, with whom I had the privilege to work over many of my 27 years at IU Maurer Law. Her willingness to take on extensive pro bono work (everything from criminal appeals in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to co-founding the Protective Order Project at the law school, giving my students and I valuable opportunities for pro bono work) while performing the highest levels of teaching, scholarship and leadership was humbling and inspirational.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

One evening when I was a young associate at a New York firm, struggling to get some pleading or brief in the mail, one of the partners, James Kearney (an exemplary litigator and mentor), told me: “To figure out how long it will take to get out any given set of papers, first form your most careful, conservative estimate — and then double it.” Not only has that advice been right on target, but over the years it’s been the tip that students have most appreciated as I’ve passed it on.

After law school I had the good fortune to clerk for U.S. District Judge Edward Cahn of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a wonderful man. Once, while I was absorbed in some legal research, he glanced at the volumes of federal reporters strewn around my office and said, “If you pile up books on the floor, people will think you’re disorganized, no matter how smart you are.” It wasn’t necessarily the most profound lesson that the judge imparted over the course of that year — and to be honest it’s an admonition that I’ve more often observed in the breach than the observance, and maybe one decreasingly applicable in this age of electronic research — but it was a great insight about professionalism and perception generally.

What makes a good lawyer/judge?

For a judge: patience and empathy, both for the parties and their attorneys. It makes a real difference when a judge seems genuinely to like lawyers — not every lawyer, and certainly not everything those lawyers do. But it helps when they start from the presumption that the advocates in their courtroom are working in good faith and sincerely trying to protect their clients’ interests — even on those occasions when the lawyer has to make an objection or argument that has the effect of making the court’s job harder.

What is something you wish people knew about lawyers?

A lot of things, including how sincerely most lawyers are invested in their clients’ success and in doing the right thing more generally. There are always exceptions, but not many people choose to dedicate their lives to the legal profession without being interested in rules — whether it’s following them literally or more interpretively.

More specifically: For the last couple of decades I’ve been a member of the ISBA Legal Ethics Committee, which fields confidential queries from members of the bar about how to apply the Rules of Professional Conduct to the sometimes-perplexing circumstances of everyday practice. I’ve often said that if the public could listen in on the intense, time-consuming, and deeply researched and argued debates by those volunteer committee members, it would definitely improve the public’s view of how sincerely lawyers take their responsibilities.

How do you spend your free time?

A lot of Netflix and Hulu, a little reading (biography and autobiography, novels). I consider myself (without any good reason) something of a euchre player. I’m a vinyl record collector (although my wife would say “accumulator,” or even “hoarder,” is more accurate). But to be honest, I have several kids at home. So, as with most parents, it’s a lot of laundry, dishes, driving. (Not that I’m complaining.)

If you could time travel to any period in history, where would you go and why?

The comedian Steven Wright has a joke that goes: “I was at a restaurant that advertised ‘breakfast any time.’ So I ordered French Toast, during the Renaissance.” I don’t think I can improve on that answer.

What drew you to legal education, and what do you enjoy about working with law students?

I’m a legal writing and skills teacher who primarily works in practice-related courses. It’s rewarding to know that students may be applying what they’re learning from you immediately into practice. Also, law schools are just incredibly interesting and vibrant places to work. Every fall a new group of 200 or so students sweeps into the law school, bringing an almost unbelievable range of experiences, talents and strengths, and you get to work with those people. And while I don’t publish myself, I’m surrounded by colleagues on the faculty who are world-class scholars in every conceivable legal field. So, it can be exhilarating just to be surrounded by that degree of thinking and debate.

Why is pro bono work important to you?

My 40 years since graduating from law school have been very good to me, and probably to most of my peers. That fact can make it even more painful to know that so many people in this country lack the basic elements of a satisfying life, or the means to achieve them. The longer I’m in the profession, the more I see how much the legal system shapes, but by the same token can also remedy, that condition.

There is an overwhelming need for free and even moderate-cost legal representation, especially in areas like family, consumer and immigration law. Indiana has a robust legal services and pro bono infrastructure, but (and I know this isn’t news to anyone) there’s just never enough money or volunteer hours to meet the need. And even with all the resources that the courts have devoted in recent years to making pro se representation more accessible, to spend any time at all in the courtroom is to be acutely aware of how much of a difference actual representation can make in terms of promoting efficient and just results.•

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