Ken Lawson

“Anyone who doesn’t believe in second chances, or the concept of redemption, hasn’t met Ken.”

— Professor Randall Roth, William S. Richardson School of Law, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

Delivering the commencement address, May 2014Many of you know that our classmate Ken Lawson got into some trouble a few years ago, lost his law license, and went to prison, but you might not know the rest of the story.  It’s an inspiring one, a story that illustrates how (to borrow a phrase from the man himself) “God can make a message out of your mess.”

I’ll try my best to relate it here.

After graduation, Ken worked as an associate in one of the big firms downtown before opening his own law office.  He had an eclectic mix of clients, from celebrities (“Ickey” Woods, Deion Sanders, Peter Frampton) to poor people he represented pro bono.  He was what they call a zealous advocate, accent on the zealous, seemingly always at the center of any high profile case, especially when there was a racial issue involved.

By any objective measure, Ken was highly successful, but the trappings of success–the high dollar cars, the nice house, the interviews on the morning news programs, the two-story “Law Dog” billboard, all the flash and flamboyance–weren’t filling what he called “the hole in my soul.”  Then, he injured his shoulder working out and was prescribed Oxycontin–which he became addicted to.  From his work as a criminal defense lawyer, he knew people who knew where and how to get drugs, and his habit eventually reached $1,000 a day.  He started stealing from clients and running a fake prescription scheme to maintain it.

When the scheme fell apart, as these things always do, Ken went into detox, and–well, I’ll let him describe it:

…for 45 days, the only way I could stop shaking was to take three or four hot showers a day. I would put a chair in there and just sit until the hot water ran out. I was hopeless. Hopeless.

My first day sober in years was Feb. 1, 2007.  My drug habit was so expensive that I had depleted all of our money and was stealing from the client trust account to support my addiction to painkillers.  When I got out of detox, our house was in foreclosure, my law license was about to be suspended, I was being investigated by the DEA, the kids’ tuition had not been paid, all of the rotten stuff I did and the rotten person I had become was all over the news for months, and I was looking at going to prison.

I’m not sure this is exactly the right way to phrase it, but this is the point where the miracle started to happen.  Ken’s wife Marva could have given up on him, and who would blame her if she had?  Ken could have given up on himself, or continued to blame others for his problems.  The whole thing could have simply ended up as one of those sordid tales in Ohio State 3d of a high-flying lawyer brought low by fast living and an overclocked ego.

But there was another force at work.

My [AA] sponsor kept telling me that God had me right where I was supposed to be. The kids and I were living in my mother’s house in my old bedroom. Boy, was I being humbled; and, looking back, I needed to learn some humility.

Through detox, and prison, and afterward, Ken’s sponsor pushed him to do an honest self-assessment.

The easy answer to what happened is alcohol and drugs, But the honest answer is that I was off track way before I took my first drink or drugs. My thinking about what life was about was way off track. I thought it was money, things, power, prestige. I kept chasing that stuff and none of it could fill that hole in my soul. . . . The truth is, I ended up hitting bottom as a direct result of choices I made. I had to learn that blaming others for my problems keeps me from seeing the truth about myself.

While all this was going on, Marva, who’d finished her medical degree in 1994, moved to Hawaii to take a job with the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center as a child psychiatrist.  (Six months ago, she left WCCHC to go to work for the Air Force.)   Ken mowed lawns to raise the money for the plane ticket to follow her.  When he got there, Professor Randall Roth of the University of Hawai’i law school invited Ken to speak to his Professional Responsibility class.

It was here that Ken completed his journey from “mess” to messenger.  He gave a talk about substance abuse and disciplinary rules–and about the meaning of life and the folly of storing up one’s treasures in the wrong place.  Professor Roth and his students were profoundly moved.

Ken with familyThe good professor worked to get Ken hired by the law school as the office manager of its “Innocence Project.”  Ken is now an “Associate Faculty Specialist” and teaches Criminal Procedure, Criminal Law, Professional Responsibility, Evidence, and The Business of Law Practice.  He seems to be quite good at teaching and reaching his students–this spring, the graduating 3Ls invited him to give the address at their hooding ceremony.

If you want to be happy for an hour, buy a steak.  If you want to be happy for a day, go play a round of golf.  You want to be happy for a week?  Go on a cruise.  You want to be happy for a month?  Buy a new car.  You want to be happy for a year?  Hit the lottery.  You want to be happy for a lifetime?  Be of service to others and help somebody along the way.

I’ll leave you with the video below, which is an interview of Ken conducted by Professor Roth.  It’s an hour and twelve minutes, and worth every second of your time.


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