Before he was a U.S. Senator, before he was governor or lieutenant governor, and while he was mayor of Richmond, Tim Kaine was a lawyer.
He has seen and done a lot since entering the Senate; he has built a reputation as hard-working and thoughtful, a traditional Democrat but not necessarily a knee-jerk liberal. You’ll find his name on many of the short lists of potential running mates for Hillary Clinton, should she win the Democratic presidential nomination.
The senator gives a good speech, so it’s no surprise that the William & Mary law school asked him to speak at its graduation ceremony earlier this month.
Kaine didn’t go on about the great challenges and opportunities ahead, the hard work, the great legal issues of the day. OK, he did a little.
But mostly Kaine talked about clients, and what he learned from them.
His first client, he said, was a woman named Lorraine who tried to rent a place to live. She called up a landlord and asked to see an apartment. No problem, she was told. When she arrived an hour later, the landlord apparently saw she was African-American and was told it had been rented. She asked a while co-worker to inquire that afternoon, and that woman was told it was still available.
Kaine, who made a name for himself as a fair-housing lawyer, drafted his very first lawsuit. With the testimony of the co-worker, he got a nice settlement for Lorraine.
He told the law grads, “I’ve gone through life experiencing ups and downs but I’ve never been burdened with the worry that people will treat me badly just because of my skin color.
“Once you’ve experienced that in the way Lorraine had, it’s hard to escape the memory, and it’s really hard to shake the worry that it may happen again,” he said. “I didn’t know this as a 26-year-old lawyer, but Lorraine taught me that and I’ve never forgotten it.”
A few months later, he said, one of the senior lawyers at the firm introduced him to a couple named James and Diane. Diane, who had a mental disability, was living with a relative who was her legal guardian. Diane married James against the guardian’s wishes and wanted to get the marriage annulled. Kaine represented Diane in a lawsuit to preserve her marriage. He fought the guardian and won, learning that the guardian wanted Diane’s disability checks.
“What started off as a marriage case in Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court ended up as criminal trial against the guardian in federal court,” he said.
Kaine said, “I learned a lot from Diane.” including the responsibility of law practice and that what a lawyer does really matters.
“And I also learned a critical lesson that served me well throughout my career— whatever the issue seems to be at first, look deeper. The marriage lawsuit, ostensibly filed to protect a mentally disabled person, was really the guardian’s effort to continue the subjugation of Diane and the theft of her disability payments,” he said.
His third client was Rick, an inmate who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He had exhausted all his direct appeals. He had a final argument to the Supreme Court scheduled and his lawyer had moved to another state.
“Someone in Richmond knew that I was a lawyer and was opposed to the death penalty,” so that person asked him to consider representing Rick.
“I had my license all of six months and my quick review of the circumstances told me that the case was a complete loser,” Kaine said, although he took the case, representing Rick for nearly three years until his execution.
At one point Kaine said he sat at his computer with a mental block. Then he recalled a line from Second Corinthians, “in my weakness is my strength.” He said he understood then that “you can’t flee from your weaknesses but have to embrace and own them as a natural part of being human. I was afraid. But somehow, just admitting that to myself helped me jump back into the work and crank out all the pleadings and advocate at all the hearings right up to the last day.”
Kaine said, “This is a lesson that I come back to again and again in my life. Fleeing from your weaknesses or pretending that you don’t have them makes you weak. But acknowledging your weaknesses, which can be very hard to do, in one of life’s great mysteries, can make you strong.”
He closed his remarks with a promise to the new grads: “My clients taught me lessons that I still reflect on today, long after I gave up law practice because of the demands of full time public service. They changed me as a lawyer and they changed me as a person. And they will change you too,” he said.