On a beautiful day in May 2006, I graduated from Stanford Law School after three of the best years of my life. The sun was shining. Everyone in celebration mode, and I felt that naïve sense of invincibility that only comes with youth. And why not?
A few years ago I had barely graduated from high school and was going nowhere in life that I’d managed to get this far only because of my adoptive mother’s endless patience, strength and love. Some revelations led me to try community college and eventually found the equipment that led to an honors degree from the University of Oregon. A typical path to Stanford Law it wasn’t, and I reveled in it as if somehow my work was done and not just beginning.
About the time of the picture I heard this distinctive voice. Efficient, but somehow both stern and gentle. “Luke!” cried, Harry Bremond, one of the first black attorneys to practice in the Bay Area, a legend in the legal community and in various other circles, and a well-respected partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, the law firm I joined after graduation.
I was flattered. I assumed he was there to congratulate me. nope Not correct. Instead, he pointed at me, “You better pass that bar, Luke!” He repeated this about three times, in front of everyone, and with some mixed-up language. Then he laughed, we laughed, we took pictures, but to the point – I knew he wasn’t joking.
And this is Harry. With exactly what I needed to hear, the way I needed to hear it. His words stayed with me throughout the summer — several times, when I felt like putting the books down for one distraction or another, I thought of him and changed my mind. I passed the bar.
This is one Harry story out of countless. For me, the opportunity to be a Pro Bono Partner at Wilson Sonsini, with such great colleagues and outstanding, supportive, visionary leadership is one I never dreamed of having as a kid. The heart and energy of the Wilson Sonsini community inspire me every day.
And that opportunity has become a reality largely because of what I learned from Harry. Harry is the father figure I never had in my life growing up. And I’m far from the only person he’s influenced in this way.
My mentor: A role model in “Black Excellence”
Simply put, Harry is Black Excellence. He overcame so much.
When he graduated, nobody wanted to hire him. He had to fight for every opportunity at a time when there was no such thing as diversity as a value and no one had come before to lead the way. There’s no way his story can be done justice here, so I’ll leave it at that he faced adversity and spun a life of brilliance with it.
He was hired by Wilson Sonsini in the early days when it was tiny and not a Silicon Valley giant. A partner for over 40 years, a trusted advisor both inside and outside the firm and a passionate litigator, he also founded the pro bono program and has led it throughout his career.
And through it all, he was a happy warrior. A few years ago I asked him if he hadn’t seen anything. He leaned back, smiled and finally said with a laugh: “I’ve seen a lot!”
To this day, and at 87, Harry has always found time to share his wisdom with others. Especially, I suppose, if they were sort of an outsider like he had been. As busy as he was, he was always looking for people and always making himself available.
For example, early in my career he would always talk about what a great platform Wilson Sonsini was and how I should maximize it by attending as many events on behalf of or sponsored by the company and giving as much input as possible. As much as I focused on learning the ins and outs of the legal profession, it wasn’t until later in my career that I really appreciated how great this advice was.
I’ve seen it drastically increase my network, visibility and sense of purpose at the company that invested so much in me. I now see it as a crucial aspect of my career.
As another example, I tended to concern myself with typical mistakes made by young lawyers. Harry sat me down and advised me to never lose sight of the big picture. Everyone, literally everyone, makes mistakes, and what matters over time is your character and what you learn from it. The little things lose meaning almost immediately, except for the lessons they leave behind.
In addition to our direct conversations, this consistent and inclusive selflessness that I have witnessed has impacted me so much. And the overall impact and ripple effect was immeasurable. For example, Harry’s early emphasis on volunteering and diversity, equity and inclusion as core values resonates strongly in the vibrant Wilson Sonsini community today.
All of this, but if you ask Harry about its effect, he’ll usually dismiss it and change the subject. You see, it’s no big deal for Harry. For me it is everything. I could never pay him back, but I intend to try by paying it forward.
And those are the lessons from Harry.
For those who nurture and share their knowledge, what may seem small to you can mean the world to those you influence.
To those looking for mentors, find the people you see – and not everyone will be. And when you find them, cherish them. And above all, respect the gift of their time and wisdom by sharing it with others whenever you can.
That means two things for me: 1) Giving everything for every customer. We may not prevail in every matter, but there will be no lack of effort or heart. Like Harry, I live and breathe to stand up for our amazing customers; 2) being there for those coming behind me whenever I can.
I see so much of myself in many young lawyers and students and I get energized when I engage with them. I try to treat those I meet the way Harry treated me – with respect, openness and a willingness to both hear and see them and offer them what I can.
Often this is something as simple as a reminder that no one is defined by their setbacks, but how they respond to them over time. Like Harry, painful experiences for me can often lead to beautiful triumphs if you lead with your heart and stay positive.
Thanks for everything I love you.
This article does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Information about the author
Luke Liss is the pro bono partner of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. He leads the company’s global pro bono efforts, including serving as the primary point of contact for client inquiries for pro bono partnerships and developing collaborative relationships with not-for-profit service providers. He also leads pro bono litigation and immigration teams.