Editor’s Note: Sid Lezak, the longest serving U.S. Attorney in Oregon’s history, dedicated the last 25 years of his career to furthering mediation. Sid died on April 24, 2006 at the age of 80. Sid is widely regarded as the “godfather” of mediation in Oregon. In this article, Jay Folberg shares his memories of Sid. You can read more and watch a recent interview of Sid by clicking here.
Last month, shortly after Sid returned from New Zealand, we spoke by telephone. I wanted Sid to know that he was a central figure in my “last lecture” at the University of San Francisco School of Law. As always, it was a delight talking to Sid. He was upbeat, funny and had great stories to tell. He also, uncharacteristically, spoke of slowing down and having trouble with his memory.
I was so glad that I had the opportunity to tell Sid that my last lecture, given upon my retirement from teaching at the law school, was about the importance of mentoring. The lecture was illustrated with pictures and stories of those who had mentored me. I spoke at length about Sid Lezak to an audience of students and faculty that didn’t know Sid. With Sid’s smiling face and jaunty bow tie projected on the lecture hall screen, I told them of the gift that Sid gave me and a legion of others who he had so generously mentored, professionally and personally.
A mentor is like a guide who has been to where you would like to go. A mentor can point out the obstacles and the best way to get to your destination and enjoy the journey. A mentor enters your life and leads by example, provides inspiration and serves as a model. I was so very fortunate to know Sid as a model and inspiration for what I will always aspire to be like, even if it is an impossible goal.
After my first year in law school, grants were available through the Ford Foundation for summer clerkships in the criminal justice system. My criminal law professor, Sandy Kadish, arranged with Hans Linde, who had taught as a Visitor at Boalt Hall, for a placement with Sid Lezak, the reform minded Kennedy appointed United States Attorney for Oregon. Sid had not had a student clerk and called Professor Kadish to ask if he was sending one of those “bearded Berkeley law students” to be his first clerk. Professor Kadish, who didn’t know Sid or what to make of his comment, felt obliged to let me know what Sid said. I shaved off my full beard before heading up to Portland in the summer of 1966. Sid seemed truly disappointed to meet his clean shaven clerk.
Sid placed me at a desk in his large office in the old US Court House so I could see and hear everything that went on there. Even though I was investigated and given security clearance, the head of the Oregon office of the FBI questioned Sid about the propriety of having a former student activist from Berkeley overhear sensitive conversations about bank robberies and draft resistors. Sid took me to lunch with the FBI agent and we talked it through and “worked it out” in typical Sid fashion. I was allowed to accompany the FBI on investigations and sit in on charging discussions.
How lucky I was to be the first of Sid’s clerks. He took me and the dozens of others who followed under his wing and introduced us to the Portland legal establishment. He was unfailingly generous with his time, his connections, his explanations and his stories. He seemed to be everyone’s best friend and interested in the lives of all those he met. I believe Sid invented networking.
Watching Sid negotiate plea bargains and civil settlements provided me a different perspective on law practice than available from texts and sparked a career long interest in negotiation and mediation. Sid masterfully employed interest based negotiation and principled bargaining long before “Getting to Yes” was a glimmer in Roger Fisher’s professorial eye. He was a natural mediator, drawing on his labor and employment law background to craft solutions to perplexing policy conflicts and agreements between competing interests. His skills preceded the terminology we now use to describe what the best mediators are able to accomplish. It was these skills and personality gifts that allowed Sid to serve for an unprecedented 21 plus years as US Attorney for Oregon under six presidents, half blue and half red.
Sid’s professional life was intertwined with his social life and complimented by his wonderful partnership with his wife Muriel. After work cocktail hours and weekend parties on the deck of their home in the Portland hills were a highlight of the summer of 1966 and for many years after that. (A welcome responsibility of summer clerking for Sid was mixing drinks.) All of Portland’s legal, political, art and academic leaders and interesting people of all descriptions found their way up Sid’s and Muriel’s driveway to their deck. Everyone seemed at home there and was treated by the Lezaks as extended family. Sid regaled us with stories, gossip and insights. He rejoiced in getting diverse people together and forging coalitions and mutual support among his friends.
It is probably no coincidence that mediation started to gain acceptance in Oregon shortly after Sid stepped-down as US Attorney in 1982, when he was increasingly asked to mediate private and public disputes. His second career as the “Dean” of Oregon mediators was an extension of his earlier work settling conflicts as US Attorney, facilitating policy consensus and being trusted as a wise and caring professional. In 1987 he was appointed by Governor Neil Goldschmidt to chair the Oregon Dispute Resolution Advisory Council, which successfully prepared and guided legislation to create the Oregon Dispute Resolution Commission. As a member of the Advisory Council, I observed Sid educate legislators and community leaders about the potential of mediation and the need for public support for community and policy mediation. Sid’s vision guided the Council and helped shape the future of mediation in Oregon and beyond. He was the first chair of Dispute Resolution Committees of the Oregon State Bar and the Oregon Federal Bar Association. He became a main stay of national ADR conferences.
I watched Sid gracefully age from being everyone’s best friend in Oregon to become “Uncle Sid” to the national mediation community. The reverence felt for Sid by those in Oregon spread throughout the country. Although I would like to think of Sid as my unique, personal mentor, I know that my experience is matched by countless others who benefited from Sid entering their lives and being mentored by him. Sid’s life, career and humanity is a positive model and inspiration to all who knew him. Sid led the way where all of us would like to go and showed us how to enjoy the journey.
Thank you Sid. We will miss you.
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