Putting Yourself Out There

As lawyers we are often asked to serve on nonprofit boards, do pro bono work, or just help those in need. Being busy often dictates declining requests that require your valuable time. However, my own experience is that volunteering can often lead to invaluable experiences that would never happen if you were just content with the same old routine. 

About 10 years ago, I was asked by my subrogation trade association to scout a new hotel in Washington D.C. on a weekend trip. I really did not want to leave home for another weekend. After being pressured, I relented and agreed to go. On the Sunday at the end of the excursion, I had an encounter I’ll never forget.

I was sitting at Reagan National Airport waiting for my plane to board when I saw two U.S. Marshalls escorting someone to the gate. I instantly recognized their charge to be U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. They escorted him onto the plane before anyone boarded and then the Marshalls departed. I thought, “Wow, that’s cool, Justice Scalia is on my plane.”

I waited in line until my group was called to board. As I approached the counter I heard, “Jeff Baill to the podium.” I announced my presence and was told that I had been upgraded to first class. As I entered the plane, I saw one empty seat in first class, right next to Justice Scalia. My heart started pounding and I thought about what I was going to say. Fortunately, the word hello came to mind.

Justice Scalia was sitting with headphones on and nodded hello back to me. I pretended I did not know who he was and went about my business of settling into my seat and pulling out my new issue of the Subrogator, my trade association publication.

People who know me well know that I pride myself in playing this game on an airplane of trying to learn all I can about the person sitting next to me. Sometimes that is a big mistake, essentially opening Pandora’s box, when the person I sit next to is loud, obnoxious, and refuses to stop talking. Other times, I have learned a lot from a wise soul who is happy to share some wisdom. In any event, I decided this was the time I needed to use all of my skills to engage with one of the most powerful people in government.

About 20 minutes into the flight, breakfast was served. Justice Scalia took off his headphones and we began to chat. At one point he asked me what I do. I explained how I was a subrogation attorney and eventually described our trade association. He indicated to me he was involved in the law and understood a little about subrogation. He did not understand how subrogation would be a different area of practice than general insurance law. That opened the door for me to present my usual lecture on what we do and how it is so different from what other insurance practitioners do. It was at that point  I had to pinch myself. Here I was, teaching one of the world’s great legal minds about subrogation. Could this really be happening?

At some point in the conversation I began to feel a little guilty pretending I did not know who he was. I said to him, “Did anyone ever tell you, you look like Justice Scalia?” He replied, “Yes, because that is who I am.”

I said I did not want to bother him about the Court but there was one question bugging me. I had recently attended the arguments on a health insurance subrogation case at the Supreme Court in which my trade association had filed an amicus brief. I left the hearing feeling impressed with the high level of discourse among the Justices and attorneys and felt strongly that these hearings should be televised to the public. Even though only a small percentage of the people would understand them, the benefit to lawyers would be immeasurable. I explained this to the Justice and asked his opinion on the issue. He said that he used to favor cameras at the Supreme Court but had changed his view. The Court was worried about 20-second sound bites being used out of context to put the Court in a bad light. He would entertain the idea of tape-delayed broadcast of the hearings once the decisions had been announced and the case was no longer in the public spotlight. He told me he thought “Ruth” might be in favor of televising hearings, but that Justice Souter had publicly stated it would happen “over his dead body.”

We went on to talk about tennis, Italy, fishing, Chicago, New York, Ethanol, and various other topics strangers sitting on a plane may discuss. He was charming, funny, engaging, and just plain interesting. If he was not famous, he still would have been one of the most interesting people I had ever talked with on a plane. 

When the plane landed, we said goodbye and he left. Later, my son asked me why I didn’t get a picture or an autograph? My response was that it just did not feel like the right thing to do. I even feel a little funny writing about it. He let me into his life for a few hours and I wonder if I am being disrespectful in talking about it. However, since it was such a positive experience, I have decided that sharing this story is appropriate. When I got off the plane, however, the thought did occur to me that I have no proof this happened. Would people believe me? I can’t control what others think. I know for me to have the chance to discuss subrogation with a Supreme Court Justice was one of the highlights of my legal career. 

How many things had to fall in place for me to land in that seat on that morning? It was like I won the lottery. I hope I made his journey a little more interesting. I know I will never forget my flight that morning and how lucky I was that I agreed to put myself out there one more time. 

Mr. Baill is the managing partner in the Minneapolis office of Yost & Baill where he practices in the area of Insurance Subrogation.  He is the founder and past President of the National Association of Subrogation Professionals. 
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Elsa Cournoyer

Executive Editor

Joseph Satter