In July, the Utah State Bar named Ron Yengich “Lawyer of the Year,” but on the day of this interview, he wasn’t resting on his laurels.
Known to friends and foes alike as a strong adherent of honesty, Ron Yengich, ’75, confessed that he was on his way to court “to get beat up,” just as soon as he wrapped the interview below. But if he was anxious about that prospect, he didn’t betray it; instead, he provided thoughtful responses on subjects ranging from the importance of personal integrity to why he is drawn to defending the underdog and why he felt “blessed” to have a group of inspiring mentors at the College of Law.
Is there a key to your energy, passion, and tenacity in such a high- stress area?
I believe in what I do. I look at the practice of law as a vocation. I’ve never looked at it solely as a business, although that is part of it. I truly believe in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and our adversary System of Justice. I believe it is imperfect, and yet the best way we have of dealing with the problem between the interface of human rights and day-to-day issues regarding crime in America. When it is operating at its best, with a good judge, good lawyers opposing one another, and in the case of a jury, a jury that is unbiased and is willing to listen, as well as other dedicated professionals like clerks or probation officers or police officers, who are putting the truth ahead of victories or losses, then it is a system that is the best process invented by we mortals, who make mistakes, to seek justice. When I use the term good in reference to these people, I’m basically saying honorable and honest, and prepared. I’m proud of what we as criminal defense lawyers do, and I am proud of our system with all its flaws.
In accepting your award, you thanked several professional mentors for the help and guidance they provided in your career, specifically citing Ron Boyce, Lionel Frankel, Ed Firmage, Wally Bennett, Bob Swenson, Bill Lockhart, and Karen Kethly-Metzger. Can you identify a few of the lessons they shared?
The people that you mentioned in your question are only a few of the wonderful professors that I had at the University of Utah. I think the critical lessons that they, and all of the rest of the faculty at the University of Utah, left me with was that the law is a profession. It is not a business, it is not a game, it is not an adventure, it is not a jealous mistress, it is a profession. It is a life, even, if you will, and these men and women emphasize that directly with their words as professors, and by their conduct. I feel that I and the students of the law school during my time there, were fortunate to have people who were truly committed to the advancement of the law, not for any particular political purpose, but because the law is the most important framework in making the United States a great country, and Utah a great state. Sadly, I believe that as the legal profession and legal education has taken on more of a business model approach to the practice of law, and even to the process of teaching, that we have lost some of that ethical fervor. Marketing yourself as a lawyer seems to rank very high, both in the CLE’s that are offered, and in the discussions occurring in academia. The politics of where the law should move seems to have taken a higher standing in the discussion than looking at what the law should be to make us the best people we can be as Americans, the best country, the best state, the best local government. This is reflective in a lot of the things in our society. It is true that as lawyers, we solve society’s most difficult problems, and that should be our primary goal — not where we stand politically on an issue, or on making money. Those problems should not be solved with an eye to the time clock, or to the goal of a particular party or movement. Regarding the professors that I had at the University of Utah College of Law, many of them I am sure were from different political persuasions, religious backgrounds, and life experience, but I never for a moment felt that they were attempting to force a political agenda on me, or do anything other than make me the best law student, and ultimately the best practitioner that they could. I feel blessed by all of them to a person.
If you could share one piece of advice with today’s law students, what would it be?
Do not cheat, steal or lie. All legal ethics basically come down to that.
Do the honorable thing as opposed to the expedient thing.
Do not do anything for money that you wouldn’t do for free, as a lawyer.
Let money walk if it compromises your personal integrity.
If you make a mistake, own up to it.
Give respect and demand respect.
Argue honestly, even if it requires you to concede truths in the other side’s argument.
Do not operate on a series of checklists alone, but look at the problem you have, determine what the possible solutions to the problem are, and if there is a creative way to get there that hasn’t been considered before, try it.
What initially sparked your interest in the practice of law? Is it everything you hoped it would be when you started out?
A number of things sparked my interest. I’ve said this many times, my dad, who was a Union leader here in Utah, taught his kids to stand up for the under dog, and to fight for what you believe in. I was always drawn to history, and history in America has always operated under the shadow of rights pursued and rights nullified, which leads to great courtroom arguments and battles. I was arrested myself, wrongfully, and that had a lot to do with it too, although that’s another long story for another day. I grew up in the era of the Civil Rights Movement and the movement for Equality, as well as the Vietnam Era when our country was in turmoil over fairness and justice, and confronting evil in the form of power. Early on, I read about and learned about martyrs to the legal cause, such as Joe Hill, Sacco and Vanzetti, Eugene Debs and others like that. Also early on, I was made aware of the movement toward social responsibility in my church, the Roman Catholic Church, under the guise of Catholic Social Responsibility in teachings from people such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and St. Pope John the XXIII.
I have been and remain a fortunate man to have had great legal mentors and associates and a wonderful family and particularly the support of my wife Kay.