Vol. 42, No. 3
In and Around the Bar
CBA 2012 Award of Merit Recipient Bennett S. Aisenberg—In His Own Words
The CBA Award of Merit is presented annually to a member "for outstanding service to the association, outstanding service or contribution to the legal profession, outstanding contribution to the administration of justice, or outstanding service or contribution to the community." The letter by attorney Dick Reeve in support of Ben Aisenberg is an eloquent representation of the overwhelming support for Aisenberg’s 2012 nomination. Reeve’s letter stated in part:
Ben is an accomplished horticulturalist, and there are many lawyers throughout Colorado who are "produce" from Ben’s garden. He germinated seeds in the hearts and minds of many folks who were in their early days of learning how to practice law. Those seeds have sprouted into professionals who today bring balance, ethics, objectivity, professionalism, and humaneness to their legal work. Ben has found a way, through his various positions of service to the legal community, of connecting with and mentoring hundreds of Colorado lawyers. Because of Ben, their lives (including mine) are better. Because of Ben, our citizens have benefited through the work of those lawyers.
Ben Aisenberg was presented the Award of Merit on January 12, 2013, at the annual Colorado Bar Foundation dinner. Below is the text of his acceptance speech.
Those of you who know me, and many of you who don’t, will probably agree that humility is not my strong suit. But I am both honored and humbled at receiving this award and I’m, in a way, at a loss for words (but not completely). I accept this award with a deep appreciation for the legal profession in Colorado and the attorneys who practice in our state. What does this award mean to the recipient? It means 18,000 of your colleagues have honored you for your ethics, professionalism, legal ability, and contribution to the profession.
When I was told I was to receive this award, I looked back on what brought me to this point. I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts at an interesting time. I was a product of the Depression, but too young to experience it. I was too young to be in the military during World War II, but followed it with great interest by way of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, the broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow, the news of an Allied victory such as that over Rommel in North Africa, the botched attempt by the Nazi generals to assassinate Hitler, the Battle of Stalingrad, the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, and even the Allied defeats. I recall the joy of VE Day and VJ Day and my mixed emotions at the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I recall the Nuremberg trials and the dilemma of the age-old defense of "I was just following orders."
I recall my elation during my second year of law school with Brown v. Board of Education, the civil rights movement that followed it, and the awakening of my social consciousness at the unrest and violence that it aroused in Southern states. Incidentally, when I started law school in 1952, there were 550 students in the class—seven women and four African Americans.
Coming from a New England background, I never directly experienced acts of discrimination, but when I enrolled in the army after law school, I saw it subtly and overtly in my days of basic training; my later duty in Colorado Springs; and a month or so tour of duty in the South, where I came into contact with many Southern whites and blacks. My pristine world was changed. Suddenly, I realized the message of a movie such as To Kill a Mockingbird really existed. I resolved I would fight with every passion I possessed to advance the goals of equality, civil liberties, and human rights for everyone.
I spent two years in the army, the majority of it at Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, which later became the Olympic Training Center, and I fell in love with Colorado—the clean air, the beauty, and the lack of congestion (then). Colorado Springs was so small—unbelievably, 30,000 residents at that time. There was no Air Force Academy, no Academy Boulevard. There was a country and western bar on every corner, and on a Friday night I knew every one of them.
After discharge in 1958, I came to Denver. Big as life. Here I am, a Harvard Law School graduate (not quite Law Review)—and I interviewed with all of the large law firms. Little did I know at that time that none of the six or seven large law firms had ever hired a Jewish lawyer. But, fortunately for me, the time was right. The Anti-Defamation League had persuaded the larger law firms to hire a Jewish associate and I did receive two offers, one from Gorsuch Kirgis and one from another large Denver firm. I accepted the Gorsuch offer. As an aside, my claim to fame is that Dan Hoffman and I applied for the same position at Gorsuch Kirgis in 1958, and I was selected. My esteemed law partner and friend, Leonard Campbell, never forgave himself for his misjudgment.
At Gorsuch Kirgis, I met one of the most impressive men I have ever known. He taught me that the practice of law was more than winning at all costs and more than squeezing out the last dollar at the expense of one’s own or someone else’s dignity. John Gorsuch was not the most aggressive attorney I’ve ever known, nor the shrewdest; he was just the best attorney I have ever known. We all need role models. John was a remarkable person who taught me many things about the practice of law; he even tried to teach me humility, although I never completely learned that lesson. His most impressive asset was that he knew people and cared for them. So, although I’m telling you my life story, it is not only about me, it is about the experiences I have had and the people who have brought me to this point in my life. I practiced with Gorsuch Kirgis for twenty-two years, and much of what I have become as an attorney I owe to that firm. I mentioned Leonard Campbell. He was also a mentor of mine. I could name many others.
As an aside, the bar was much, much smaller then. When I started practice in 1958, the Equitable Building was the lawyers’ building. Gorsuch Kirgis with eighteen attorneys was on the second floor; Dawson Nagle Sherman and Howard with twenty attorneys was on the third floor; and the giant, Holland & Hart with twenty-five attorneys, was on the fifth floor.
I was welcomed into the legal community by many young lawyers, my contemporaries. As much as I liked the environment at Gorsuch Kirgis, I have always been somewhat of an individualist, and I left the firm in 1980 to open my own practice. I like the challenge of attracting clients and gaining a reputation in that regard. I was prepared to sink or swim. Based on this award, I guess I stayed on the surface.
I love our jury trial system, which, although imperfect, represents the backbone of our profession. I have litigated to conclusion pretty close to a hundred cases. Have I won more than I lost? I stopped keeping track years ago.
After fifty years as a litigator, I began to realize that I just didn’t have the motivation and enthusiasm to be a trial lawyer any more, and so I turned more to arbitration and mediation, which I thoroughly enjoy. Now I describe myself as a problem-solver, not a problem-maker. I especially love the challenge of mediation. It’s an uplifting feeling to know you’ve saved the parties the expense and brain damage of litigation. I also have testified on more than forty occasions as an expert witness. I label myself as a straight shooter. I have always strived not to identify personally with the attorney who retains me or his or her client. My main goal is to preserve the integrity of the system. This is somewhat hyperbole, but my claim to fame in this area is that I have been unendorsed as an expert witness almost as many times as I have been endorsed (because I couldn’t give the engaging attorney the opinion he desired).
Also, I had the good fortune to join the Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee in 1986, and have found it one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. I have met so many wonderful attorneys, attorneys who practice in different areas, who I would not have had the opportunity to meet in my litigation practice. This committee is dedicated to raising the ethical consciousness of Colorado lawyers and assisting them with their problems. I don’t think I’ve missed fifteen meetings in my twenty-six years.
I loved my roles as President of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, President of the Denver Bar Association, and President of the Colorado Bar Association. As President of the Colorado Bar Association, I had the opportunity to travel to every county in the state and meet very dedicated lawyers who, again, have the goal of raising the perception of the bar. I have received a number of awards culminating in this one, such as the Colorado Trial Lawyers Lifetime Achievement Award and the Denver Bar Association Award of Merit. But among my most treasured are the recognition given me by the Sam Cary Bar, the Asian Pacific American Bar, and the Don Sears Award of Merit given by the Ethics Committee. These latter three have very special meaning to me.
I always wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was growing up. And, I guess, looking back, I should conclude with what I have learned. I’ve learned that in a complex society such as that within which we live, attorneys, starting with the judiciary and extending to those of us who practice before the judiciary, are the means of bringing justice and social change into this world. I enjoyed my six years on the Denver Judicial Nominating Committee because I believe our system starts with a strong judiciary.
This award epitomizes to me that, in some way, I have added to our esteemed profession. I would not be able to thank the many, many attorneys who have helped me become what I am and win this award. I don’t want this to sound like an Academy Awards presentation. However, I will single out two to whom I wish to give a special thanks. First, former Award of Merit winner Tony van Westrum, who, in his own way and unbeknownst to me, garnered the support I needed to win this award. Tony has been a dear friend and colleague. Finally, Chuck Turner, our Executive Director, whose friendship and guidance have been a source of inspiration to me through my many activities on behalf of the Bar Association and in my personal life. As an aside, Chuck and I rarely agree on anything, but our disagreement is always within the concept of what we are discussing, rather than without. And thank you, Deb [Turner], for acting as moderator on many of those occasions. Incidentally, Chuck, you still owe me two dinners.
In closing, I love and admire this profession so much, and to be honored by its members is the greatest gift an attorney can get. Thank you for being a part of my life and for everything you have done for me.
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