skirts of a two-lane that is stretched out just
like an asphalt dance floor.” But, oh, is Put-
nam County a complex palette of eccentric
personalities—a slice of America that’s prob-
ably not much different from “anytown Ari-
zona.” It’s probably not that different from
where you’re sitting right now. We’re all in
Putnam County, and our professional tool-
boxes are filled with “tire irons and crowbars
But it was the way my judge chose to
react that day—and indeed, on many other
occasions—that set the tone for me for years
to come. In fact, he taught me other valu-
able lessons about grace, love, and under-
standing, all of which have become indis-
pensible parts of my professional toolbox
today, a toolbox that I’ve used to unclog
some of life’s other colorful messes.
It turns out that some of the most powerful tools in our professional toolboxes are
not rules, knowledge, or experience (i.e., the
tire irons and crowbars of law practice). The
power tools in our toolboxes are the ones
that we use every day—the ones that make
us good friends, partners, and people.
I learned my first lesson about professionalism in the
bathroom of a federal courthouse. It was during my first year out of law
school, I was clerking for a federal judge, and, because of some ongoing construction, our judge’s chambers were sequestered in a temporary
wing of the court.
Restrooms in the courthouse facility were in short supply, so we had
an understanding: If the judge was
on the bench or out of his private
chambers, we could use his toilet in
Well, one thing led to another
and, let’s just say, the judge’s toilet
became hopelessly clogged one day
when he was on the bench. As I
opened the door to leave and contact building maintenance, there
came my judge headed straight
toward me, humming Jimmy
Durante, “Inka, dinka doo.” He
was headed for his morning constitutional.
As he approached, he began to
hand me his black robe. Panic-stricken, I stretched out my arm and said,
“You cannot go in there, judge. I’ve clogged the toilet, and I’m going
to get some help.”
“Don’t be silly,” he said as he gently pushed me aside. He then started
rolling up his sleeves and—to my horror—actually started plunging the
toilet. This judge, appointed for life by the President of the United States
of America, who had just gotten done sentencing a bank robber to years
in prison, was plunging a toilet that I had clogged.
“Judge, please! This is very embarrassing,” I said. And without miss-
ing a beat, he turned and smiled. “Geoff, it’s fine. We’re both clearly very
The lesson was humility, compassion, patience, and, of
course, humor. Those, for me anyway, became the first tools of
professionalism in my budding professional toolbox.
After years of law school, I had learned that I needed to
re-learn some things. Not to take myself too seriously was one
thing, but also that professionalism—true professionalism—is
born out of how we treat other people every day. It’s especially
tested in those quirky and unusual situations when life’s lens is
fogged over due to a clogged toilet or for some other reason.
Those are moments that don’t make it into Supreme Court
rules and comments.
It’s those experiences that form the complex fiber of law
practice. Take a listen to Putnam County by the great Tom
Waits. You’ll quickly learn that Putnam County isn’t a compli-
cated place; instead “it’s kind of shy and sleepy as it clings to the
by Geoffrey M. Trachtenberg PRESIDENT’S MESSAGE
out of how we treat other
people every day.
My Professional Toolbox
U.S. District Judge Gary L. Taylor