The Great Power of Ignorance
Some claim amazement that any lawyer could achieve national prominence after spending his first seventeen years of practice in the sticks of Wyoming – indeed, in Riverton, Wyoming, population something like five or six thousand people. But the key to whatever success I now enjoy after nearly sixty years of practice is ignorance.
Ah, the power of ignorance!
I remember believing that if I could start a practice on my own and handle enough divorces at $150 and farm leases at $5.00 that someday I could own a small piece of land, build a modest home, and maybe even be elected to the legislature of Wyoming.
No one told me how powerless a young, inexperienced lawyer was supposed to be. I didn’t know that big corporations, especially insurance companies, were supposed to be unbeatable. I thought I could accomplish any goal. My ambitions, as provincial as they were, were thankfully protected by ignorance.
I didn’t know you had to be a graduate of Yale or Harvard or Michigan or some other great university to have a shot at becoming a successful lawyer. I didn’t even know where Yale or Harvard was. Princeton was back East somewhere. But where I couldn’t say.
I took on cases and attacked my opponents in court like a wild Comanche armed with only a bow and arrow. I didn’t know you had to belong to certain clubs and golf with the bankers to get cases and to amount to something. No one told me who to be like, because there were no great role models in Wyoming. I thought lawyers were supposed to fight for their clients. I thought judges were fair and honest. I believed in the system – that there was justice for all out there if you wanted it bad enough and went after it.
I never had to make deals with the power structure because I didn’t understand their power. They were afraid of me, because I was ignorant of their power, and powered with an innocent appreciation of my own. No one is more powerful than the kid in the trenches who has no understanding of pain or death. That’s why we send young men to war.
I remember the old boy from our largest city, the preeminent insurance lawyer in Wyoming, and, of course, Wyoming’s representative to the American Bar Association. He wanted us to give twenty-five dollars each to help the national bar establish an advertising program for lawyers – to give us a better image he said. That was nearly sixty years ago. I got up in the county meeting of about five lawyers and ignorantly asked, “If we want to be seen better, why don’t we do better?” That was real ignorance.
My opponents always thought I was brave. But I was ignorant of the consequences of losing. I won because I was innocent – a better word. But if one is ignorant of what They can do to one, one has an indomitable power over them. Their greatest power against the people, yes, against those who fight for the people, is Fear. Fear is the controlling power of every society. It is the foundation of religion. You had better conform, you had better give away whatever power you have, or bad things will happen to you. But I didn’t understand that rule.
I am put in mind of my nephew when he was about twelve and playing Little League baseball. It was the last inning in the championship game – his team was two down, the other team was ahead by three, and when my nephew stepped up to bat the bases were loaded. He hit a homer and won the game. I said, “I bet you were afraid, weren’t you? The whole game rested in your hands.”
“No,” he said. “They were in trouble.”
The power of ignorance frees one of fear, frees one to rely on one’s native talents undiluted by the message of the power structure that one is a meaningless digit who can become successful only if one submits and follows the dictates of power.
I like to tell lawyers, and any others who will listen, that they are perfect – and their perfection is powerful. We are each unique. No one lives or has ever lived or will live in the future who is exactly like me, or like you. This means one cannot be compared, because there is no one to compare one to.
But we have been educated otherwise. We have been convinced from an early age that we are lacking in some way. We are not as bright as our brother, or sister. We are told by our teachers that we are not as talented as the others in the class so we are given lower marks. But always, the greats of the species have somehow been ultimately saved from the debilitating judgments of others.
The lawyer I fear most is the young advocate, man or woman, who does not know that I am a more accomplished lawyer. I fear an opponent who is protected by ignorance and who, therefore, is free to beat me. I am afraid of those kind because of the great power of their ignorance that protects them and unleashes their own indomitable power.
Ah, the power of ignorance!