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Provide top cover

Updated: Jan 28, 2023

This is a blog about leadership advice based on lessons I learned first as a follower and observer of leaders. In my first series called "What I Learned from the Admiral," I wrote about the lessons I learned as a young naval flight officer and admiral's aide from 1989 to 1991.

I am now beginning the series "What I Learned from the Judge."

From 1994 to 1996, I served as a federal judicial law clerk in the federal courthouse at the historic Four Corners of the Law on the corner of Broad and Meeting Streets in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Called the Four Corners of the Law because the four buildings on each corner of the intersection are the original federal courthouse built in 1896, the county courthouse built in 1753, the Office of the Mayor of Charleston and City Hall dating back to 1800 to 1804, and St. Michael's Church embodying God's law and built between 1752 and 1761.

I worked in the newer section of the federal courthouse at that time named after Senator Fritz Hollings. It has since been renamed for Judge J. Waites Waring in 2015. Judge Waites was years before his time as a civil rights hero. As a federal judge, in the 1940s and 1950s, Judge Waring made rulings that upheld equal pay for African American teachers and ended white-only election primaries.

He is most well-known for his legal dissenting opinion in a 1951 case in which he stated: "Segregation in education can never produce equality." The United States Supreme Court later recognized his dissent in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that finally ended school desegregation! Charlestonians shunned him, and he received constant death threats. Waring had rocks thrown through his home windows, and the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of his house.

Working in that courthouse as my first job as a lawyer solidified my firm belief in the rule of law and the judiciary’s role in our country. It is there where I learned from the Judge.

What to do now

I was very fortunate to be selected to interview with two federal judges during the fall of my second year of law school. After my first interview with Judge David C. Norton, he called and offered me the job the next day. My dilemma was that I had an appointment for my second interview with another federal judge in Greenville, South Carolina, the following week. However, Judge Norton was my top choice, so I did not want to proceed with the second interview. At the same time, I thought that I needed to do so as a professional courtesy. I was not in the position as a second-year law student to call a lifetime-appointed federal judge to cancel an interview with him.

I asked Judge Norton for a week’s extension to respond to his offer, but all about told him I was going to accept his offer. I told Judge Norton that he was my top choice, and explained that I thought I needed to see the Greenville judge and tell him that I intended to accept the offer from Judge Norton. While that would be a tough conversation after a four-hour drive to the Upstate, as we call it, I thought it was the right way to thank the judge in person and politely close out the issue.

The Judge

Judge Norton graduated from Sewanee and, after that, enlisted in the Navy, where he spent three years becoming a Yeoman Second Class. The Yeoman rate is the professional administrative personnel in the Navy. After the Navy, he enrolled in the University of South Carolina School of Law. He served in private practice, as an assistant county prosecutor, and as a municipal attorney by the time President George H. W. Bush nominated him to be a federal judge. Married with two young daughters, Norton was a family man and well-respected by the South Carolina Bar.

Norton had been a judge for a couple of years by the time I interviewed with him. At a time when males indeed dominated the law clerk positions and the federal judiciary, his first three law clerks had been brilliant females. Many of my law student colleagues told me that I had little chance of getting a clerkship with him, because "he did not hire guys," they said.

When I interviewed with him, I also met his two current law clerks. Both of them had also graduated from USC Law School. They were indeed very smart and also extremely easy to talk to. Like him, they had a good sense of humor and were humble. I also thought it was favorable that he was hiring USC Law School graduates when I am sure he was flooded with eager applicants from more prestigious out-of-state law schools who saw both him and Charlesotn as attractive. At that time, there was only one law school in South Carolina. Today, there are just two.

"Judge, I probably need to go in person to tell Judge Henry that I have an offer from you, and I want to withdraw from his consideration. I do not think I can do that over the phone," I said.

"I am not sure how he will take that because he might even consider that visit a waste of his time," I continued.

"I don't think you need to do that, Mark, but I think it’s admirable that you want to," he said.

"How about this? I will call him and tell him I beat him to the punch and that you are going to be my clerk.?" the Judge said. "That way, you don't have to waste your time, and he's a good friend of mine."

"I would really appreciate that, Judge," I said.

That's how my relationship with the Judge began. He's still a mentor today.

Lessons Learned

One of the greatest attributes of a leader is providing top cover for your employees. The Judge did that for me years before I was even an employee. I knew he was going to be a good boss, but I still had to finish law school and pass the bar exam to experience that.

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1 Comment

TD Smyers
TD Smyers
Jan 22, 2023

Great story and moral, Mark!

Although, I have to admit, I did see this coming from your foreshadowing in the prior piece. :)

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