September 11th reminded us of the importance of heroes. Confronted with a horror too big to grasp, we sought inspiration and meaning in individual acts of heroism.  The acts of heroes ennobled us, made our sorrow easier to bear, and made us proud to be Americans.   German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote, “Unhappy is the land that is in need of heroes.”  Americans saw again last month what Americans already knew: we are not a land where heroes are in short supply.

Some of you may wonder whether the law really has true heroes. After the events of September, television networks told their sports announcers to give the word “hero” a rest.  Compared to the heroes on the front page, calling athletes heroes seemed to “trivialize” the word.  Hitting lots of home runs or scoring lots of touchdowns may be great accomplishments, but these are not heroic deeds. 

What, then, is a hero?


A hero—in the true sense of the word—does more than do his or her job well, or even very well.  Philosopher Sidney Hook, in his 1943 book, The Hero in History, defines a hero to be someone who in addition to doing his or her job well “makes a unique contribution to the public good.” 

Are the people who make us feel most proud of our legal system more like great athletes or like New York City’s firefighters?  Are they the lawyers with the best win-loss percentages, the lawyers who win the biggest judgments for their clients, the lawyers who become partners at the youngest ages? Or are they, rather, the men and women who work hard, tell the truth, and serve the cause of justice?

In this age when lawyers are too frequently the target of late night comedians and pundits of all sorts who deride the legal profession as filled with amoral ambulance chasers; in a time when too many law students leave law schools less committed to using their careers to promote justice than when they entered it, it should be clear what sort of people we in the legal profession need to hold up as heroes.  We need to remind ourselves and remind others—from Jay Leno to lawyer-bashing candidates for office—that the law produces American heroes.