What Would Chuck Ruff Do?

By District of Columbia Bar

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By Jim Murray, Blank Rome LLP

The subject line “Our New Leonberger Puppy” popped up on my computer screen. I loved my recently departed Newfoundland, but slobber-infected walls could get to any dog lover. 

Chuck Ruff and I had frequently talked of big dogs. So, I had written him to advise that I had discovered a breed with the features and temperament of a Newfie – but, amazingly, sans drool.

His reply e-mail was one-line, all caps:  “CONGRATULATIONS!!  BUT I’LL BELIEVE THE NO-DROOL WHEN I DON’T SEE IT.” It was Thursday, November 16, 2000. I hit “save” so that I could, at my leisure, craft an equally witty retort. 

But, that was not to be. Four days later, early Monday morning, I learned that those words would be my last communication from Chuck Ruff. Since then, I have exchanged hundreds of thousands of e-mails. Few of them are important.  Even fewer are cherished.

We are now 15 years without his voice. On any given day in the District of Columbia and elsewhere across this country, there are senior, experienced trial lawyers who wish for one more conversation with him. One more calm assurance that our judgments are on track. 

Should I cross examine Jones or just sit down? Should I fire this client? Should I take that job in government? 

After all these years, we still want to know: What would Chuck Ruff do?

Why? Aristotle’s answer would be that Chuck was the epitome of phronesis.

Phronesis is a different kind of wisdom, one more particular than abstract, more practical than theoretical, more of this world than was Plato’s emphasis on abstract virtue (sophia). Sophia was necessary for the living of the good life, but woefully insufficient.

Phronesis has been often translated as “prudence,” but that has a connotation of risk aversion. The far better translation is “practical wisdom.” At its core, practical wisdom is concerned with particular situations, with the ability to perceive and understand the nature and context of circumstances. The heart of practical wisdom is deliberation; its manifestation is action.   

Aristotle would have pegged Chuck Ruff in a New York minute. 

In Daniel Becker’s 2001 Legend in the Law” article in the Washington Lawyer, the portrait of Chuck as the embodiment of practical wisdom is apparent from the consensus of opinions from lawyers and clients who worked with him.  Chuck is quoted as saying he “detested law school” and that he spent his first-year thinking about “joining the Peace Corps or taking a tramp steamer around the world.” 

It was a call-to-action on a Columbia Law School bulletin board that led him to Liberia to teach and administer a law school at the ripe old age of 21. This was, no doubt, a critical initial step in his later ability to marry emotion with reason and action. (Surely it did not hurt his ethical compass to have spent “25 Saturday afternoons a year at the [Metropolitan Opera House]” during his formative upbringing.)

Many of Chuck’s cases were “in the news.” Virginia Senator Robb retained Chuck’s judgment after the Department of Justice’s 1992 initiation of an investigation into the illegal taping of Governor Wilder’s cellular phone conversations. Chuck was unmatched in his ability to conduct both a legal and a public relations defense. 

But, Chuck was also always involved in an array of cases that the public would never see, or would ever care about. It was his devotion to those clients, as much as to a Senator (or the occasional President) that represented his ultimate virtue.

During the Robb investigation, Chuck and I tried a bank fraud case for an unknown soul who was treading water and was trying my patience (and who by today’s standards was seriously in arrears on fees). Chuck’s dedication was never diminished.  His closing words to that jury contained the same compelling logic, yet understated appeal to human emotion, as did his argument on the floor of the United States Senate during President Clinton’s impeachment trial.  

Chuck would cringe at the fancy talk about Aristotle, at least in reference to himself. He would remind us that on any given Saturday afternoon, at work in his office, he would most likely be watching a ballgame on his 12” television set, not turning the pages of the ancient Greeks. 

But, for those who want “just one more answer” as we carry on the practice of law (and life), this characterization, albeit somewhat fancy, permits us to believe that while we can strive to cultivate practical wisdom in our everyday lives, we should not be faulted for ultimately failing. 

Very few achieve that state of knowledge. We should be excused for continuing to ask, “But, what would Chuck Ruff do?”

Jim Murray is a trial lawyer and partner in the D.C. office of Blank Rome LLP.  He was Chuck Ruff's partner at Covington & Burling during the 1990's.