On a beautiful day in May 2006, I graduated from Stanford Law School after three of the best years of my life to that point. The sun was out. Everyone was in celebration mode, and I was feeling that naïve sense of invincibility that only comes with youth. And why not?
A few years before, I had barely graduated high school and was going nowhere in life, making it that far only because of the endless patience, strength, and love of my adoptive mom. Some epiphanies led to trying community college, and then ultimately finding the gear that led to graduating with honors from the University of Oregon. A typical path to Stanford Law it was not, and I was reveling in it like my work was somehow done rather than just beginning.
Right around picture time I heard that unmistakable voice. Efficient, yet somehow both stern and gentle. “Luke!” exclaimed, Harry Bremond, one of the first Black attorneys to practice in the Bay Area, a legend in the legal community among various other circles, and a deeply respected partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, the firm I was joining post-graduation.
I was flattered. I assumed he was there for me, to congratulate me. Nope. Wrong. Instead, he pointed at me: “You better pass that bar, Luke!” He repeated this about three times, in front of everyone, and with some colorful language mixed in. Then he laughed, we laughed, we took pictures, but point taken—I knew he was not joking.
And that is Harry. With exactly what I needed to hear in the way I needed to hear it. His words stayed with me all summer—several times when I was about to put down the books for one distraction or another, I thought of him and thought better of it. I passed the bar.
This is one Harry story of countless. For me, the opportunity to be Pro Bono Partner at Wilson Sonsini with such amazing colleagues and excellent, supportive, visionary firm leadership is one I never would have dreamed of as a kid. The heart and energy of the Wilson Sonsini community inspires me every day.
And this opportunity is a reality largely because of what I learned from Harry. Harry is the father figure I never had in my life growing up. And I am far from the only person he has impacted in such a way.
My Mentor: A Role Model in ‘Black Excellence’
Simply put, Harry is Black Excellence. He has overcome so much.
When he was graduating, no one would hire him. He had to fight for every opportunity at a time when there was no such thing as diversity as a value, and no one who had come before to light the way. There is no way to do justice to his story here, so I will leave it that he was handed adversity and with it has spun a lifetime of brilliance.
He was hired at Wilson Sonsini in the early days when it was tiny, rather than a giant of Silicon Valley. He was a partner for over 40 years, a trusted adviser inside and outside the firm, and a fierce litigator who also founded the pro bono program and led it throughout his career.
And through it all, he was a happy warrior. A few years ago, I asked him if there was anything he hadn’t seen. He leaned back, smiled, and finally said with a laugh: “I’ve seen a lot!”
To this day, and at 87 years young, Harry has always found time to pour his wisdom into others. Especially, I suspect, if they were an underdog in some way like he had been. As busy as he was, he would seek people out, and always follow up and make himself available.
For an example, early on in my career he would always talk about what a great platform Wilson Sonsini was and how I should maximize it by attending as many events on behalf of or sponsored by the firm and getting as involved as possible. As focused as I was on learning the nuts and bolts of how to be an attorney, I didn’t really appreciate how great this advice was until a bit later in my career.
I saw how it drastically increased my network, visibility, and sense of purpose with the firm that invested so much in me. I now see it as a crucial aspect of my career trajectory.
As another example, I tended to dwell on typical junior lawyer mistakes. Harry would sit me down and counsel me to never lose sight of the big picture. Everyone, literally everyone, makes mistakes, and what matters over time is your character and what you learn from them. The little things fade in importance almost immediately except for the lessons they leave.
Paying It Forward
In addition to our direct discussions, this consistent and inclusive selflessness I witnessed impacted me so much. And the overall impact and ripple effect has been immeasurable. For example, Harry’s early emphasis on pro bono work and diversity, equity, and inclusion as bedrock values resonates strongly throughout the vibrant Wilson Sonsini community today.
All this, yet when you ask Harry about his impact, typically he will brush it off and change the subject. You see, to Harry, it is no big deal. To me, it is everything. I could never repay him, but I intend to try by paying it forward.
And these are the lessons of Harry.
To those who may mentor and share their wisdom, what may seem a small thing to you may mean the world to those you impact.
To those searching for mentors, find the people that see you— and that won’t be everybody. And when you find them, appreciate them. And above all, respect the gift of their time and wisdom by paying it forward to others whenever you can.
For me, that means two things: 1) Giving my all for every client. We may not prevail in every matter, but it won’t be for lack of effort or heart. Like Harry, I live and breathe to advocate for our amazing clients; 2) be there for those who come behind me whenever I can be.
I see so much of myself in many young lawyers and students and am energized by engaging with them. Those I get to know, I endeavor to treat how Harry treated me—with respect, openness, and a willingness to both hear and see them and offer what I can.
Many times that is something as simple as a reminder that no one is defined by their setbacks, but rather how they respond to them over time. As with Harry, as with me, painful experiences can often lead to beautiful triumphs if you lead with your heart and stay positive.
Thank you for everything, Harry. I love you.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
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Luke Liss is the Pro Bono Partner of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. He manages the firm’s global pro bono efforts, including serving as the primary contact for client requests for pro bono partnerships and developing collaborative relationships with nonprofit service providers. He also leads pro bono litigation and immigration teams.