A Role Model for Me … and All of Us

A Role Model for Me … and All of Us

This past week, David Lander retired from his law firm in St. Louis, after a 45-year career as an attorney. He won’t be resting on his laurels, though he would surely be within his rights to do so. In the coming days, he’s starting his “encore career” (as some people call it), working half-time each at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri (which he directed many years ago), and St. Louis University Law School

I could not possibly be more proud of my dad – so this seemed like a good moment to honor him, and to reflect on why.

David Brooks has written recently about rebalancing between resume virtues (“the skills you bring to the marketplace”) and eulogy virtues ("the ones that are talked about at your funeral -- whether you were kind, brave, honest, or faithful").

I don’t love either term: Of course I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of my dad’s eulogy, and am looking so forward to many more years together (just this summer, we had a fantastic week of hiking and touring Yellowstone and Jackson Hole, and my dad and mom continue to put their kids and grandkids to shame in the hiking & fitness department). And my father’s hard work at his job – to serve his clients well, to improve public policy (even in the arcane field of Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code), and to take care of his family – wasn’t done to pad his resume. So maybe “career virtues” would be better. But of course Brooks’ point is broadly correct.

In any case, my dad is just about the perfect combination of those virtues.

He’s the best listener I know. When you’re talking to him, its not just that he’s paying attention. His entire presence is focused not only on what you’re saying, but on how it matters. Doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you have, how old you are. It’s a kind of listening that honors his closest family members, and people he’s just meeting for the first time. It meets you where you are, but also connects to something deeper. In a routine and yet profound way, it validates that you matter.

He values without judging – a balance that is really hard. Of course, I know plenty of people who are pretty judgmental (and my own kids will tell you that I certainly fall into this category). And I know people who are non-judgmental, too, open and welcoming to all. But sometimes that can mean failing to have a moral compass about what’s right. My dad manages to affirm people’s abilities to make choices – and to help many people make the ones they want – while still clearly possessing a set of values that serve as a guide-star for making the right choices.

Over the years, I’ve had so many people stop to tell me what an extraordinary person he is, how he went out of the way to be helpful to a friend, a relative, a client (or one of their friends, relatives, or clients). How you can count on him, and on his word. He is a deeply loyal friend – down to helping a boyhood friend, plagued with challenges of mental illness but blessed with a deep capacity for joy, find public housing that would let him keep his zoo-like mélange of pets, stay one step ahead of his creditors, and keep his independence and his family together until the end. And through all his compassion for others, he manages to make my mom, my sister and her kids, and for-sure Meg, Marek, Rosa, and me feel like we are simply the most valued people in the world.

Oh yeah, and he’s had a pretty spectacular career as well. He spent 10 years as an attorney and director at Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, where he created new programs to help prevent low-income people from having their utilities cut off and support poor seniors. Since 1980, he’s been in private practice, as a partner in the Husch Eppenberger, Thompson Coburn LLP (for over 20 years), and Greensfelder law firms. Across those 30+ years, he represented debtors, creditors, and everyone in-between, in bankruptcies, Chapter 11 reorganizations, and workouts. He’s a national expert on topics from agribusiness finance to consumer credit, a member of the esteemed National Bankruptcy Conference, the U.S. Court Advisory Committee on Bankruptcy Rules, and every other relevant honor (Top 10 Super Lawyers, etc).

In his time at those firms, he worked as a real mentor and team-builder. That is sadly rare in corporate law firms. But in every setting his goal was to create a space where young lawyers could thrive and build their skills, work in teams that balanced what different people are good at, and build a better practice over time. 

Meanwhile, he’s served on countless boards of directors, not just in-name or attending meetings, but helping to create new organizations, and always providing hands-on support to the staff and directors – from Opportunity Clearinghouse (helping former prisoners find jobs), to Consumer Credit Counseling Services (wrestling with a complicated field in an effort to help debtors and provide real education), to Professional Housing Resources (helping not-for-profits get pro-bono legal help), and Jews United for Justice StL (organizing Jews in St. Louis to fight for social justice and civil rights). His work has been recognized with the Missouri Bar’s Pro-Bono Award, St. Louis Society for Ethical Culture’s Humanitarian Award, and more.

At the same time, he’s taught continuously at St. Louis University Law School, on subjects including bankruptcy, Article 9 of the UCC, the History, Impact, and Regulation of Consumer Credit, and (I kid you not) “Global & Economic Justice: Perspectives on Inequality.” (OK, so the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree).

Now, as he retires from corporate law, he’s taken the time to set up an “encore career” that’s entirely fitting. At Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, he’ll be helping strengthen their efforts to support low-income tenants and debtors, and helping the younger lawyers there build their skills and teams. At SLU, he’ll keep teaching, mentoring students, and writing (you can follow some of what he writes occasionally on a blog at “Credit Slips.” One of my recent favorites: “Lessons for Consumer Protection from the World of Inclusive Capitalism”).

If you’ve made it this far, and you know anything about me, you can see that most of what I’ve tried to do in my own life is just to extend things I learned (no, “learned” isn’t quite right; because so much of it is grounded in me in ways that are deeper than that) from my dad. I’m grateful every day – never as much as I’m able to say it – for what his parenting has made possible for me, in every aspect of my life, my family, and my work. I’ve got a long way to go, especially on getting the balance right, and even more on listening and mentoring. But he sets those standards so non-judgmentally, so that even in confronting shortcomings, I feel far more affirmed than judged.

As deeply as I can say it: Thanks, Dad. And good luck in what’s next. Can’t wait to see what you’ll be doing in the years to come.

P.S. My mom (Carole Lander) is still working, full-time, at age 71, as a school guidance counselor at a public elementary school in St. Louis County. While my dad is shifting to his encore career, she’s gearing up for the 2015-16 school year at Claymont Elementary School, where the average teacher is half her age, and she was the counselor to many of the parents – but where none of them can match her energy (in the classroom or in spin class), and where she continues as an extraordinary source of support for so many kids in need. I’ll write more on her when she retires … but don’t hold your breath.