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Lessons in law found in history

It all began in 1957 when the president of the American Bar Association — Washington, D.C. attorney Charles Rhyne — approached the White House to establish May 1 as Law Day, a time when attorneys across the country could celebrate how the rule of law and our democracy contribute to American freedom. Rhyne “envisioned a special national day for celebrating our legal system.”

In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower set aside May 1 as Law Day, establishing it as “a day of national dedication to the principles of government under law.” “It is fitting that the American people should remember with pride, and vigilantly guard, the great heritage of liberty, justice and equality under the law,” said then-President Eisenhower.

Ten years later, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution making May 1 the official date for celebrating Law Day. “It was a special day of celebration by the American people in appreciation of their liberties and the reaffirmation of their loyalty to the United States,” says Janet Stidman Eveleth, director of communications for the Maryland State Bar Association, or MSBA. “Maryland lawyers celebrate Law Day in their own way. We know that they really do a lot of public service on an ongoing basis, but this is one day for lawyers to honor their profession by truly working to improve their community, often through their own local bar associations.”

Of course, choosing May 1 was not a random date. “Law Day occurred on the same day that the Russians were having a huge show of military might in the Soviet Union,” says David De Jong, a 1975 graduate of the Washington & Lee School of Law, who also holds an LLM in taxation from the Georgetown University Law Center. “It was very deliberately chosen to show that the body of law and the rule of law is more powerful than an army.

“I’m a child of the 1960s, which was a very traumatic time in this country,” he explains. “The first week in May 1970, four students were killed at Kent State University by the National Guard. After the killings, there were huge protests that effectively shut down many universities. Many people found the killings at Kent State absolutely horrific. The effect of the protests and the shutting down of so many institutions helped facilitate change, although not overnight, in the United States.”

Indeed, the nonviolent demonstrations protesting the war in Vietnam did put enough pressure on the government to bring a highly unpopular war to an end. “It did not happen until several years later, but the end was accomplished through largely peaceful protests,” says De Jong.

But it is not only seasoned attorneys, like De Jong, who has spent his entire career at Stein Sperling in Bethesda, who understand the importance of such a day. His firm colleague, Monica Harms, who graduated in 2002 from The George Washington University Law School, acknowledges its importance.

“Law Day is really a sort of celebration for attorneys,” she says, adding that her firm’s attorneys are very active with the Montgomery County Bar Association. “There are a lot of social activities for attorneys during the year. But Law Day is the one day when there really is vast participation … a lot of people attend Law Day events. Our bar association always has a speaker who has something profound to say about the practice of law.

“But it also serves as a reminder of why we became attorneys, and to reflect why we do this work.”

And, while attorneys may often be at odds in the courtroom, most are able to put aside their differences on May 1. “Law Day reminds us of the power of the rule of law and the effect that peaceful protest can have,” says De Jong. “Furthermore, it enforces a sense of collegiality within the various law associations. Here in Montgomery County, we have the largest gathering of the bar on Law Day. We may be adversaries in the courtroom, but we are still united in spirit.”

Every year the American Bar Association sets a theme for Law Day. Past topics have included the importance of upholding the rule of law, the separation of powers and the American jury, and empowering youth to carry on this American legacy.

In 2009, the theme is tied to the 200th anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln: Honoring Lincoln’s Legacy of Freedom.

“But many bar associations will veer away from the official theme,” says Eveleth. “In the past we celebrated Law Day with a toll-free hotline that people could access to get free advice with legal issues.”

But for the past 15 or so years, the MSBA has celebrated Law Day with a conference for high school children. “This is a project that is sponsored by our Public Awareness Committee and our Citizenship Law-Related Education Program,” says Eveleth. “It’s held at the conference center at Sheppard Pratt, and Maryland Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell always gives the keynote address.

“We work around Judge Bell’s schedule, so this year Maryland will actually be celebrating Law Day on May 13. We’ll probably have about 150 people, including students, teachers and guidance counselors, from all over the state coming … the kids really love Judge Bell.”

Topics addressed in the past include dangers on the Internet and drinking and driving. This year’s topic will be “How the Law Impacts Your Life.”

But it is not only on Law Day that students have an opportunity to learn about the legal system. “Our attorneys participate in the Citizenship Law-Related Education Program, which sponsors projects in schools throughout the year,” says Eveleth. “Volunteer attorneys mentor children, hold mock-trials and help them participate in teen court.

“And hopefully all of our attorneys will participate in Law Day, whether that is going to senior centers to answer questions or volunteering at a soup kitchen. It is a great opportunity to help those in need.

“In the end, Law Day is a time to pause and think about our legal system and its meaning in everyone’s life.”