Official Magazine of the Denver Bar Association

On the Town Chapter Two: Franz Hardy Sits Down with Colorado Supreme Court Justice Richard Gabriel

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the Colorado Supreme Court’s newest justice, Richard Gabriel. I’ve been fortunate to know Justice Gabriel through the legal community over the years. He is one of the “nice guys.” We spoke about his “nice guy” reputation, his vantage on the legal profession, and his advice for new and established attorneys. His responses to these issues and more are well worth the read.

HARDY: Justice Gabriel, can you tell us a little bit about your background?

GABRIEL: I was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in a working-class family. My siblings and I were the first generation in our family to go to college. After getting through college and law school on substantial financial aid, I clerked for a federal judge in Baltimore, where I met my wife. After my clerkship year, I went to a large firm in New York, where I practiced business litigation. I worked there for over two years, and then in 1990, I followed Jill to Denver, where I joined the firm that was then Holme Roberts & Owen and is now Bryan Cave. I practiced there for about 18½ years in general business and intellectual property litigation, until my appointment to the Court of Appeals in 2008. I then worked on the Court of Appeals for seven years, until I was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2015.

HARDY: How’s the new job?

GABRIEL: After two years, I can’t say that it is that new anymore, but I am enjoying it very much. By definition, every case that we see is challenging and significant, which makes the job fun and meaningful. I also very much enjoy my colleagues and the lawyers who argue before us.

HARDY: What’s your vantage as a justice of the Supreme Court? To be more specific, how do you see the profession now, as opposed to maybe how you viewed it as a Court of Appeals judge and a practitioner?

GABRIEL: When you are on this side of the bench, you are one step removed from the battles in the trenches and the emotions that come with that. It gives you a sense of perspective as to what really matters and what is persuasive in a case, as well as what battles need to be fought and which do not. I don’t fault lawyers for sometimes losing perspective when they are in the trenches and in the heat of battle. For the most part, I think lawyers try to do things the right way. But we are all human, and sometimes the heat of battle catches up to us. When you get on this side of the bench, though, it is easy to be divorced from that emotional side of things. That’s what we judges are supposed to do. And when you sit where I sit, you realize that cases tend to turn on a just a few key facts or legal issues. It is an interesting perspective to have.

HARDY: Can you share one aspect of your job that is beyond deciding cases?

GABRIEL: Well, a couple of aspects of my job come to mind. My colleagues and I are on a wide array of committees that the Supreme Court oversees, and that takes up a fair amount of my time. One of the most fun parts of my job is the chance to serve as ex officio chair of district nominating commissions. Watching citizens work hard to send to the governor the very best candidates for judicial positions is very gratifying and instills great confidence in our merit selection process. Another aspect of my job relates to public outreach. I think it’s very important for a justice of the Supreme Court, and really all judges, to not be isolated in their chambers. So I make it a point to try to get out and speak to the public. I’m very involved in a group called Our Courts, which was created to educate non-lawyer citizens about how our courts work. I think it is mutually beneficial for judges to meet the people we serve and for them, many of whom may never have met a judge before, to get to see that we are just human beings who work very hard to try to get it right.

HARDY: Do you miss the day-to-day practice of law in a law firm?

GABRIEL: I get asked that question a lot. I miss trying cases and arguing appeals. I really enjoyed doing that. I do not really miss the business side of the practice of law. To me, law is a profession first, but in the type of practice that I came from, I can’t deny that there is also a business aspect to it, for example, billing time and developing business. I think I did okay at the business side of things, but that wasn’t the fun part for me, and I confess that I don’t miss that part.

HARDY: You’ve always had a reputation as a nice guy. We had a case together. I was a first- or second-year lawyer at the time, and you were a partner on the other side. I learned your reputation first-hand. Is this something you work at, or is it something that’s just innate about who you are?

GABRIEL: Well, I appreciate that very nice comment. I think we are who we are. I was raised by wonderful parents who taught me what’s right and how to act toward people. It matters a lot to me to treat people like I like to be treated, and I also try very hard never to forget where I came from. Although I think we’re born with our personalities to a large degree, I believe that we have enough control to avoid letting our life circumstances change who we are. If I ever get to a place where I think I don’t have the time, or I don’t think it is important, to say hello to someone on the street or to spend time with somebody who asks for a bit of my time, then I probably need to be doing something else.

HARDY: What changes have you seen in the DBA over your tenure as a practicing lawyer?

GABRIEL: The biggest change that I’ve seen is that people frequently do not understand the huge benefit that bar membership brings. When I began practicing law, it was a given that you would join the bar association. And the benefits were obvious. The bar provided opportunities for networking, mentoring and continuing legal education, and everyone recognized the importance of the bar as an advocate for lawyers, including at the legislature, when issues affecting lawyers and judges came up. The bar still provides all of those benefits, but it seems far more difficult to get lawyers, and especially new lawyers, to see that. I think we need to reinvest in this effort, and I applaud the fabulous work that the DBA Young Lawyers Division and your predecessor, John Vaught, among others, have done in this regard. Young lawyers are the future of this bar association. We need to show them what the bar association can do for them.

HARDY: You’ve provided a lot of service to the legal community, such as the DBA Board of Trustees, various committee work and numerous presentations. Why?

GABRIEL: I think all lawyers and all judges get a lot out of the legal profession, and that is particularly true for me, given my background. In a million years, I never would have predicted that this working-class kid from Brooklyn, New York would be where I am now. Because of that, I have always been very conscious of the fact that I have a duty to give back. And that includes not only serving the profession in the ways you mentioned but also serving as a mentor. Some of the mentors that I had were among the greatest lawyers in Colorado history. I frequently mention the late Dan Hoffman as one example. Now, I’m at a position where I have the opportunity to mentor young lawyers, and it’s a joy for me to do that. And I will tell you that as a mentor, you get as much out of the mentor-mentee relationship as the mentee does.

HARDY: You’ve also always been a strong advocate of diversity and inclusion in the law. Where does that come from?

GABRIEL: My parents struggled, particularly financially, when I was growing up, and I also saw occasional glimpses of antisemitism. I think that gave me a lot of sympathy for others who have to struggle, no matter what that struggle might be. I also believe deeply that we are all better when we’re in an environment that’s diverse and inclusive, and this is particularly true of our profession and our courts. Obviously, it’s critically important that citizens have confidence in our profession and in our courts, and I think citizens have more confidence in those institutions when the institutions look like them. Also, we clearly all benefit from diverse points of view. In this respect, I think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and this is particularly true for a court. It is very important for a judge to see and truly understand all sides of an issue to make the best possible decision. If important viewpoints are not represented, it makes our jobs much more difficult.

HARDY: This article will be published during Professionalism Month in October. How has the legal profession’s climate changed since you began practicing? What are your observations of the climate now?

GABRIEL: The climate has changed in a number of different ways. One is that when I got to Colorado from New York, it felt like a small collegial bar. People knew each other, and when you were across the table from someone, you expected to see him or her again. So, you acted accordingly. That’s changed. The bar feels larger to me, and my sense is that, in many cases, lawyers no longer feel like they are likely to see the lawyer across the table again. That, too, affects behavior. And although technology is great in many ways, I am not sure that it has been particularly helpful in terms of professionalism. It used to be that when you had an issue with someone, you picked up the phone or you would go see them. That personal touch promoted civil discourse and professionalism. When we are less personal and when we communicate only electronically, it makes it easier to act less professionally. It is easier to be rude to someone in an email than to his or her face.

The second big change that I have noticed is the competitiveness of the legal environment. It’s harder now for young lawyers getting out of school to get jobs. Much harder than it was before. And when lawyers get jobs, it is far more competitive for them to advance, and it’s far more competitive among clients too. It used to be that law firms would have institutional clients that were with the firms forever. That is no longer the case, and the resulting pressures have created challenges for professionalism.

Another thing that comes to mind is that the pendulum seems to have shifted pretty far from viewing law as a profession to law as a business. I alluded to that before. I have always maintained that law is a profession and, at some level, a business, but it is a profession first, and the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. I’ve always been of the view that professionalism is good for business, and my mentor, Dan Hoffman, is a good example of that. You couldn’t find someone who was more professional than he was, and he was one of the most successful lawyers in Colorado history. He did it by doing things the right way.

A final thing that I think affects professionalism is the public’s perception of lawyers, and the media hasn’t helped in this. We have moved from the paradigm of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird to the paradigm of Tom Cruise pounding the table and screaming at a witness, “I want the truth.” And judges are not immune here. We see plenty of television judges who get ratings by yelling at people. People have this new paradigm in mind when they call looking for a lawyer, and they often start the conversation by saying that they are looking for a bulldog. This only perpetuates the myth of what lawyers are supposed to do. The remedy is for lawyers to take the time to educate their clients as to what lawyers really do and how they are supposed to act.

HARDY: What advice would you give a newer lawyer?

GABRIEL: To new lawyers, I would tell them to do what they are passionate about. Law is stressful enough. It’s a hard job that we do. If you’re not doing something that’s meaningful to you and that you’re passionate about, it’s very easy to get burned out. Doing what you are passionate about is a good recipe for success.

HARDY: And what advice would you give to more established lawyers who have been around the block?

GABRIEL: I would ask more established lawyers to recognize that the environment has changed and that we have a particular obligation in this new environment to step up. And that includes volunteering to mentor new lawyers who do not have easy access to mentors, including the many lawyers who get out of law school and, for whatever reason, hang their own shingles. We have an obligation to help these lawyers to get established, to network and to learn how to practice law the right way. They are the future of our profession.

HARDY: As someone whom I’ve observed over the years who works hard, takes exceptional pride in work product and has all of these extracurricular activities, do you have advice on work-life balance?

GABRIEL: To have any kind of work-life balance, you have to be very organized. You also need to learn how to say “no,” which isn’t always easy in this competitive environment. And you have to make whatever is important to you in your non-work life a priority, which also is not always easy. I confess that I’ve not always been very good at this myself.

It is so easy to get wrapped up in what we are doing that we think we simply cannot take time off. But it is remarkable how easy it is to just walk away when you really have to. When my parents each passed away, I dropped everything and was gone for weeks. And everything that I left on my desk was there when I got back.

Another good piece of advice came from another of my mentors, Bruce Black, who reminded a trial team in the middle of a trial, “Sleep is a weapon.” A little bit of sleep really does go a long way.

And the last thing I would say in terms of balance is to know when to shut off your phone and put it away. If you keep it attached and on 24/7, work-life balance is impossible.

HARDY: Tell us a little bit about yourself besides being a longtime practitioner and now a judge.

GABRIEL: I’ve been playing the trumpet for 46 years, and I’ve done so professionally for almost that long. I love all sports and particularly baseball. (I’m a die-hard Colorado Rockies fan and a reformed New York Mets fan). I like to ski. I like to play golf, although I’m not very good at it. I like movies and theater, especially musical theater. And I try to take advantage of the beautiful state that we live in.

HARDY: Your Honor, that’s all I have. Is there anything else that maybe I should have asked you or you wish I would have asked you?

GABRIEL: No, I think you’ve covered it quite well. But I want to say I’m grateful for your time, Franz, and I’m particularly grateful for your commitment to the Denver Bar Association and to this legal community. You mentioned earlier the case that we had when you were a young associate. I have no memory of what the case was about, but I have a very clear memory of meeting you on that case. And at the risk of sounding sappy, it’s been a joy for me to watch you progress so successfully in our profession. I’m proud of all that you’ve accomplished, and as an active DBA member, I look forward to working with you as you serve our community as president of the Denver Bar and beyond.

HARDY: Aw shucks. D

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