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We usually write about subjects within our law practice expertise such as estates, trusts, nursing home care, and small businesses. However, last night’s opening presentation of the Steven Spielberg movie Bridge of Spies inspired us to write a few words about what it means for us to be lawyers specifically, and the general pride that everyone should have to be Americans.

The Bridge of Spies features Tom Hanks’ character, James B. Donovan, a prominent New York insurance defense lawyer and former associate prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials in post-World War II Germany. The movie portrays how Donovan risked his life and career to defend Rudolf Abel, an accused Soviet spy charged with espionage during some of the scariest days of the Cold War in 1957. A federal jury convicted Abel, but Donovan persuaded the court not to sentence Abel to death. Donovan argued his client’s case to the United States Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction by a 5-4 decision but praised Donovan with the “gratitude of the entire court” for accepting the controversial case.

The second half of the movie features Donovan’s unofficial role as the lead negotiator to exchange Rudolf Abel for American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, whom the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) shot down during Powers’ 1960 overflight of strategically sensitive Soviet military facilities. Complex relationships between the United States, the USSR, and the brand-new German Democratic Republic (East Germany) made negotiations for prisoner exchanges almost impossible at official diplomatic levels. Somehow, Donovan’s role in Rudolf Abel’s espionage case drew him into an unlikely negotiating role as a private United States citizen and lawyer to negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers. The whole matter became more complicated when East Germany captured American economics student Frederic Pryor and threatened to try him for espionage as East Germany was beginning to build the Berlin Wall.

People often ask how lawyers can take controversial cases or represent unpopular perspectives. That question implies that lawyers cannot be ethical, moral, or even respectable citizens when they accept such roles. It is difficult to express the high ethical, moral, and social necessity of lawyers filling such roles more eloquently than Tom Hanks’s portrayal of Donovan’s explanation to a CIA agent in Bridge of Spies (see the scene in this YouTube clip) when he said, “I’m Irish and you’re German, but what makes us Americans? Just one thing…the rule book. We call it the Constitution and we agree to the rules, and that’s what makes us Americans.”

James Donovan did not invent his responsibility to the rule of law. Even before America’s founders complained to King George III in the Declaration of Independence, before the United State of America was a sovereign nation, Massachusetts lawyer John Adams boldly and successfully defended the reviled British soldiers accused of murdering members of a violent colonial mob in the pre-revolutionary incident known as the Boston Massacre. Adams went on to negotiate a treaty with England after the Revolutionary War and served as our second United States President. History books overflow with such examples of lawyers shaping our nation’s pivotal moments.

Law schools train lawyers to understand and predict how laws emerge and evolve to regulate our constantly changing society and protect its citizens. Lawyers learn to become part of our system of laws, to represent clients within that system, and to rely on the system to solve most problems as effectively as possible. We also accept the charge to monitor, maintain, and improve the system as the stewards of justice and the rule of law.

A woman told us while we were teaching a class on advance healthcare directives and end-of-life procedures earlier this year in Washington, Indiana, that she does not trust lawyers. We found sad irony in that statement because, although the law and every other vocation has its rogues and imbeciles, no other profession dedicates itself so faithfully to advise and represent people like her when the rest of the world tolerates abuse, neglect, and other injustices. That misguided woman may have trustworthy friends and family, but when the chips are down, she will probably need a lawyer. In good times and bad times, almost everyone needs a lawyer eventually. That is why we are proud to be American lawyers.

About the Authors

Jeff and Jennifer are Trust & Estate Specialty Board Certified Indiana Trust & Estate Lawyers. They are also active members of the Indiana State Bar Association and the Indiana Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA). Jeff is also a member of the Illinois NAELA Chapter.

Both Hawkins are admitted to practice law in Indiana, and Jeff Hawkins is admitted to practice law in Illinois.

Jeff is a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the Indiana Bar Foundation. He is also a member of the Illinois State Bar Association and he served as the 2014-15 President of the Indiana State Bar Association.

More Information

Find more information about these and other topics on YouTube and at www.HawkinsElderLaw.com. Facebook users can follow @HawkinsElderLaw on Facebook. Twitter users can follow @HawkinsElderLaw. You can also call us at (812) 268-8777.

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