This year I had the privilege of working with the San Diego County Bar Foundation's (SDCBF) Distinguished Lawyer Memorial (DLM) program. This is an annual ceremony where recently deceased attorneys and judges are recognized by the legal community and given a permanent plaque in the county courthouse.
I have known about the DLM program for much of my career (I'm an attorney in San Diego), but candidly, I hadn't paid much attention because I was a young lawyer and had no connection with the inductees. (I also didn't own a custom documentary business in the years prior.) That changed this year, as I had the opportunity to collaborate with the SDCBF on this year's program.
Be sure to read to the end, where I share one of the videos that was screened at the event.
How it Began
In August 2016, I received an email from the SDCBF requesting nominations for 2017's DLM program. When I receive these emails I usually take a moment to consider whether I know any attorneys who recently passed away, then move on and forget about it. The DLM ceremony historically consisted of live speakers at the podium, and and this email planted the seed that this year's event could have a bigger impact if it featured videotaped interviews from multiple people.
The Eternal Roots website launched a few months prior, and I was initially looking to interview people like my grandfather. This email inspired the long-shot idea of doing interviews and videography for the DLM program. I first reached out to the SDCBF to introduce myself, explain my work and explore the possibility of collaborating. My contact at the SDCBF, Marcel, suggested that we collaborate on the DLM program. (This is what I wanted, but I was hesitant to be so direct at first.) After a quick phone call, a freshly drafted proposal sat in his email inbox.
Then I waited. And waited. After the passage of about six months, where I inferred the proposal was not going anywhere, I received a call from Marcel one Friday afternoon in late February. Marcel advised that the SDCBF was accepting my proposal. I was being hired to create memorial videos for each of the attorneys being inducted into this year's DLM ceremony. I was to interview three people for each inductee, and create five memorial videos of 5-7 minutes in length. The videos will be shown at the ceremony on May 24th. This is happening.
I drafted an agreement between Eternal Roots and the SDCBF to create these five videos. The SDCBF had one edit to my draft contract: six inductees were to be memorialized this year, not five.
The Pressure Begins
When I first pitched the videography concept, when I drafted the proposal, and when I drafted the contract, I knew I had bitten off more than I could chew. I was so intent on pursuing this project and making it a reality that I didn't really consider how I would interview 18 people, then create six memorial videos, to be shown before the local legal community. While working as an associate at a law firm. With other custom documentary projects on calendar and in production. While being a husband and father of two children. With a three-hour daily commute.
A couple weeks later I received a series of emails between the SDCBF and the points of contact for the inductees. I was cc'd and the emails introduced me and the memorial interview concept. Then it was incumbent upon me to follow up with each of them to explain the process, solicit and schedule the interview (to be shown publicly), then request introductions to others to be interviewed. I also had to get as many pictures as possible of the inductees. And be sure to interview some non-lawyers for the project, so we can get a more holistic view of the inductees. What the hell did I just commit to doing?
The first thing I did was solicit help. I knew I couldn't do all this alone, so I reached out to a video editor I know named Robert Wingo. A phone call later we had a verbal commitment to work the project together. That would free me up to coordinate the project and interview people. I was fortunate to get several interview projects under my belt before this one began, so the six month delay before my proposal was accepted was a blessing in disguise.
Here is a photo of me heading out the door to my first interview. I was set to interview the sister of a great man and attorney who died in a sudden accident. She is a paralegal who worked about 7 city blocks away from my office. I commuted downtown by train, so that morning I packed a briefcase, camera bag, camera tripod and lighting kit, and went to my office. I also packed a change of clothes, as I certainly didn't want to waltz into my law office displaying my Eternal Roots shirt to my employer. I told my boss I was doing this project, but we never got deep into details. He didn't ask so I didn't tell.
Here is the gear I carried on multiple train rides.
On the train that first morning I sketched out some questions on 4x6" cards. I felt tremendous responsibility and pressure to properly and accurately memorialize these inductees. As I prepared for each interview, I realized the inductees led extraordinary lives that merited recognition. The people I was interviewing were close and they had intimate relationships. I had to come to these interviews prepared and professional, yet empathetic and trustworthy. On many occasions it distinctly felt as if the inductees themselves were watching. I conducted myself as if they were in the room during every interview.
For every interview I entered a new person's home or office with my interview kit and adapted to a new environment. On the one hand, I had to build quick rapport with the interview subjects, explaining Eternal Roots and the SDCBF collaboration, and that I was actually a colleague of theirs, doing this on the side, while also being sensitive to the fact that his person recently lost a colleague, friend, or family member. On the other hand, I had to make difficult judgment calls about acoustics, background, ambient noise, natural and artificial lighting, and the orientation of my camera and lighting kit, in 18 different environments. There were hiccups and lessons were learned. But I did the job and got better with experience. Over time the interviews became more relaxed and the video and audio quality improved.
I brought my gear to interview a judge at the San Diego Superior Court, then immediately went across the street to the Southern District of California, the federal courthouse, to interview a retired district judge. At 91 years old, he elected to read from prepared remarks. That meant I had to make the scripted reading appear natural and similar to the other interviews.
You also don't just waltz into a federal courthouse, or any courthouse for that matter, carrying recording gear. A federal judge issued an order permitting me to enter the courthouse with my gear. Security personnel knew who I was when I entered the door and approached the x-ray. The line was empty so they enjoyed themselves and gave me a good ribbing. This actually relaxed me and put me in a good mood.
I also interviewed the presiding judge at the Fourth District Court of Appeal to memorialize her colleague. I was escorted through the building every step of the way. I didn't realize it at the time, but the DLM ceremony was going to be in the top floor of the same building (Symphony Tower) in a couple months.
At the Court of Appeal, awaiting my guest.
This journey also sent me to a couple churches. I interviewed the rector at an Episcopalian church and the head pastor at a Presbyterian church.
Both of these experiences involved deep discussions, on the record and off, about spirituality, faith, legacy and living a life of purpose and meaning. Meeting with church leaders close to a couple of the inductees really made me feel connected to the people I was memorializing - and to a higher power. I never felt "alone" on this journey.
Every person I memorialized led an extraordinary life. I'm not saying this just to put them on a pedestal following the memorial. These six people made the most of their time on this planet, they worked circles around most people, and they positively impacted the lives of others. A pattern emerged as I interviewed their family members, pastors and colleagues. Not only were these people at the top of their game in the legal profession or the judiciary (that's a given), they had strong relationships with their families, churches and colleagues, and they did so much more than practice law.
One of the inductees was well known for being present at every event at his kids' school and extracurriculars. I consistently missed recitals at my kids' school because I was downtown at the law office, chasing billable hours for the benefit of my employer. Every elderly person I have interviewed said one of their regrets was working too much and not spending enough time with their children when they were younger. Nobody told me they regretted spending time with family, and wished they worked more hours at the office. This attorney being memorialized had his own law office, so he had the freedom and flexibility to come and go as he pleased. This certainly nudged me in the direction of going out on my own, which I had been considering for some time.
Multiple attorneys were active in their church, leading Sunday School or performing in the church band and serving as church elder. They were unashamed of their faith and gave back to their communities.
Another inductee had a book club for adolescent girls. She held monthly meetings where she inspired and empowered young girls at an impressionable age. She was also well-known for her hand-written Thank You notes that she liberally distributed. Nobody does this anymore. I was most impressed that she personally mentored two women, a refugee and a foster child. They both became college graduates and productive members of society.
Another inductee was a Top Gun pilot, prolific author, musician, family man, church elder and famous trial lawyer. He accomplished more before he arrived at the office than most people accomplish in a day.
The theme here is Legacy. These people left positive marks on the world, they improved the world around them, and they were rightfully recognized by the legal community. Tomorrow is not promised to any of us. Our lives can be snuffed out in an instant. If that were to happen to you, what would be your legacy? What would your friends and family say about you when you are gone? I was so humbled by the way these people were revered by their colleagues. I always regarded myself as an overachiever, and get into a funk when I act beneath my potential. These DLM inductees are a reminder that we can become anything we put our minds to, and your legacy is being written every day.
My role was to coordinate with the SDCBF and the 18 interview subjects, to conduct the interviews and direct the vision and tone for the videos. I forwarded the video and photo files to my editor and communicated the vision, and he did the rest. Robert created six memorial videos that struck the perfect tone - positive and uplifting. The SDCBF had some revisions, and Robert was on the ball. He kept introducing fresh ideas up until the day before the event. The time eventually came where we had to let go, submit the final product and hold our breath.
I spent much of May 24, 2017 on handwritten Thank You notes my wife designed. She created Eternal Roots-branded cards, and I wrote personalized notes to each of the people who participated in the interviews, thanking them for the time and care they put into their testimonies. I uploaded each person's video onto a flash drive, and my wife attached the drives to the cards with twine.
My primary objective at the ceremony was to find the interview participants in a sea of suits and get these cards out. I also bumped into a professor whose class I really enjoyed in law school. He was and is a judge on the Court of Appeal, and he taught Criminal Procedure. Even though I've never practiced criminal law in my career, I loved his class and took the opportunity to tell him so.
When the event began, at the University Club atop Symphony Towers in Downtown San Diego (it was over capacity), I found a place to stand off to the side. I wanted to see the crowd as well as the presentations. A speaker took to the podium to share memories about each inductee, then the video was shown. It was gratifying to watch the crowd react to the videos, which I had come to memorize from repetition. Every humorous anecdote inspired laughter, many eyes tears were shed, and each inductee received thunderous applause at the close of each video. None of this was about me, it was all about them. They lived their lives; I just coordinated the stories.
We omitted any reference to Eternal Roots in the videos. There were no title or credit screens. It wasn't about that. The SDCBF thanked Eternal Roots at the close of the ceremony, and this was the payoff from several months of hard work. Was it worthwhile? Imagine seeing your ideas come to fruition like this.
In summary, I am reminded of the Richard Branson quote that if you are presented with an opportunity, and aren't sure if you are ready, say Yes and figure it out later. Here I created an opportunity I was not yet ready for, but I figured it out and recruited some necessary help. This was an intensive and intense learning and growing experience, and for that I am eternally grateful. I am entirely comfortable conducting memorial interviews now.
To close out this lengthy post, I would like to share one of the six videos we created. Here is a tribute to the Hon. Franklin Orfield.
About the Blog
Here I write about the evolution of this project, the act of preserving life stories and personal development. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it.