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Remembering Ben Bradlee: 5 Life Lessons for Lawyers

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on October 23, 2014 10:05 AM

Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee died Tuesday at the age of 93. Bradlee was the editor of the Post during one of its most difficult times, and the time that made it famous: the Watergate scandal of 1972-73. Even long after Watergate, Bradlee continued to helm the Post, cementing its place as a national newspaper, not just a "metropolitan daily."

So what lessons can lawyers learn from Bradlee?

1. Take Chances.

When Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein came to Bradlee claiming they'd been contacted by a high-level source in the Nixon administration, they also refused to tell him who the person was. Bradlee didn't care who the person was, "so long as he did one thing, and that was tell the truth," Bradlee told NPR in 2005. That's a tall order, but it means that Bradlee had confidence that his staff would do the right thing. You should have the same confidence in your associates and co-workers.

2. Know Where You're Going.

What do you want your career to look like in five years? Ten years? Bradlee knew exactly what he wanted. After The Washington Post bought Newsweek, where he was then Washington bureau chief, Bradlee told the Post's president Katharine Graham straight up that he wanted to be its managing editor -- and that's exactly what happened.

3. Take Responsibility for Your Mistakes.

Everything was great at the Post -- until 1981, when writer Janet Cooke's Pulitzer Prize-winning piece about an 8-year-old heroin addict turned out to be a complete fabrication -- and so did her resume. Bradlee returned the Pulitzer and launched an investigation into how such a thing could have happened. So if you forget that deadline or mess up that citation, own up to it.

4. Don't Forget to Be Human.

Above all, Bradlee was charismatic and likeable. In our lawyers' universe, we often don't treat each other like people, or we're too concerned with our own ladder-climbing to care about others. Bradlee was ambitious, to be sure, but he also loved people. And they loved him right back. Just please, don't forget your sense of humor.

5. Put Truth Ahead of All Else.

Isn't that why you signed up for this lawyer job? To get to the truth? Bradlee certainly did, and he didn't care who wanted to stop him -- even if it was the president of the United States. Bradlee went with the Post to the U.S. Supreme Court to win the right to publish the Pentagon Papers, and he was prepared to go toe to toe with Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal.

"As long as a journalist tells the truth, in conscience and fairness, it is not his job to worry about consequences," Bradlee said in 1973. "The truth is never as dangerous as a lie in the long run. I truly believe the truth sets men free."

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