He looked me up and down and appraised my earnest eyes and zealous attitude. He no doubt knew it was masking my nerves. His polyester suit made me feel silly as I stood in my crisp new one and my shiny shoes. He wore his experience and I, my “lack of” was an understatement. With every courageous objection I made during that trial, his eyes twinkled as he argued and educated both the court and me. It was my very first trial and I was matched against the most experienced divorce lawyer in Omaha, Steve Lustgarten. I was so new, I didn’t even comprehend how nervous I should be going up against this great.
Mr. Steve Lustgarten passed away earlier this week, at the age of 86, and on this rain-soaked morning I stood under my umbrella amid judges, his friends and family, and the divorce lawyers who have been teaching me for 15 years, to show our deep respect for this legend of a lawyer. Mr. Lustgarten taught me some lessons I now share.
Be True to Your Standards of Integrity
Mr. Lustgarten was known for not being shy when he was displeased with you. He would very bluntly and directly tell you when you had messed up. I am not talking about pointing out mistakes – I am talking about telling you when you messed up your integrity – no matter how small the infraction.
My moment came when I did not timely answer to a letter he sent me wherein he specifically asked me to respond within a certain time frame. I neglected to do so. In response to my non-response, he sent me a letter reminding me that it would take me years to demonstrate to people that I was the lawyer I knew I could be. But in a single instant I could ruin my reputation and credibility. He reminded me to pay attention to that. It was stern. It made me cry. But it made me cry because he was right. I needed to show up as a professional every day. Even when it was inconvenient. Even when it was hard.
Keep a Sense of Humor
Every single time I was in the presence of Mr. Lustgarten he told me a joke. He’d always start “Did I tell you about the time…” What he taught me with his good sense of humor was that he didn’t take it personally that we were adversaries. When he told the jokes in front of judges, he made the judges human to me as I watched them laugh. He taught me about what it meant to advocate for your client, but be friendly and respectful with your colleagues. Make each other laugh.
Mr. Lustgarten was also the lawyer who called me out of the blue while I was pregnant with my first daughter and gave me details so I could join the Ladies in Wading swim class for pregnant women. In this small act of kindness, he showed me it was admirable to be kind and thoughtful to your colleagues too.
Be A Teacher
What I remember most about my first trial isn’t the outcome, but the next day. The day after trial, Mr. Lustgarten called me. When my receptionist said he was on the line, I immediately became nervous. I picked up the line. “You did a fine job young lady! Now, do you mind if I give you a couple of pointers?” Of course he could give me pointers, he was nearly 50 years my senior! He patiently and carefully gave me a handful of practice pointers based on my performance. He had watched me carefully and had taken notes to help me. I never had another lawyer who practiced opposite me ever do that again. He was the only one who took time out of his day to invest in me and be my teacher. I remain grateful to this day for how he influenced me as a lawyer.
So for now, we are adjourned, Mr. Lustgarten.