Raised by the Bar

Laura Anders Lee recalls growing up with the world's best lawyer—her dad.

David Vallejo

As a child growing up in Alabama, I wanted to be a lawyer like my father. It only takes watching To Kill a Mockingbird once to inspire you to change the world. I’ve always likened my dad to Atticus Finch, and it doesn’t hurt that he also looks a bit like Gregory Peck. (I refuse to tarnish one of my literary heroes by reading Go Set a Watchman, which was never intended to be published.) 

I was Scout, looking up to my father who worked in the tallest building in Mobile, so tall we could see it from our house 15 miles across the bay. I still remember those few special Saturday mornings when I accompanied him to his office with my freshly sharpened pencil and my crisp yellow legal pad. 

When I turned 16, I became his firm’s runner, a now obsolete profession thanks to mobile banking and e-mail. I ran errands, filed paperwork and transcribed dictations. I also typed legal property descriptions from thick file folders, stacked neatly on my dad’s office floor, into their brand-new 1996 computer system:

Beginning at the iron pipe in the northeast line of main street distance north 74 degrees 12 minutes west 365.22 feet from its intersection with the east line of said lot 4, thence along said survey line, south 60 degrees …

Every line started to look the same, the letters and numbers running together in my head, but I made sure it was perfect. My dad has a keen eye for spotting mistakes, always ensuring every i is dotted and every t is crossed. (I didn’t become a lawyer, but I did become an editor.) He also loves being helpful and gives very detailed directions, as you can probably imagine from the said property description. 

There is a reason real-estate attorneys aren’t the stars of prime-time television legal dramas, but my father finds his work gratifying. He’s still going to the office every day at 68, always in a suit and tie. He loves a good lawyer joke and shares them at his weekly Lions Club meetings. He even found a hobby that makes reading pages of contracts fun. While some fathers collect stamps or coins, my dad collects names—hundreds of legal names over four decades. A few of our favorites are Winnie Mac Pough, Ima Rose Bush, Destiny Hooker, More Payne, Orange Vanilla Hunter, Cherry Pye, Baby Ruth Pugh, Rosie Posey and Pepsi DiCola. 

Other than having a jovial sense of humor, my dad is known for his work ethic and high moral standards. When other kids were going off to school in the 1950s, my dad and his two brothers often stayed home to work in North Alabama’s grueling cotton fields. He earned a basketball scholarship to college and became a lawyer so he would never have to pick cotton again. He and my mom worked odd jobs to get him through law school—he worked as a painter’s assistant and in the Birmingham steel mill—never taking out a loan and eating peanut butter sandwiches every single night. Today, he still refuses to waste anything. If you throw something away in his presence, he immediately says, “now wait a minute,” and checks the trashcan just to be sure. The expiration date is merely a suggestion. When someone takes the last pickle from the jar, he drinks the juice. Once we ordered pizza on a road trip, and three days later, he packed the last slice and drove it 250 miles home with him. Waste not, want not.

He’s a stickler for the law—and for any rules, for that matter. He taught us that in each and every circumstance, you do what is right. If your child turns 3, there’s no getting them into Disney for free. If you’re 13, you can no longer order off the children’s menu. If the cashier forgets to ring up an item, you let them know. You pay taxes, you don’t cheat, you don’t lie, and you live your life above board.

After I turned 18, we took a family trip to Canada, where I was of legal drinking age. Dad took me to a bar and ordered us a CC and 7 (Canadian Club and 7 Up), and I felt like such a grown-up.  

I have always had the utmost respect for the law profession because in my mind, it’s synonymous with my dad: dignified, honorable and just. When I need advice on a difficult decision, I know he’s going to tell me to do the right thing. When he’s silent, because he’s never judgmental, I know I’ve messed up. I correct myself and become a better person, because he has raised the bar. 

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