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Ten things I learned from working with Ben Yale

Ryan Miltner Published on 19 July 2012

For several years now, readers of this magazine have been privileged to read the thoughts of Ben Yale, who passed away in June at the age of 60. For the last 10 years, I have been privileged to work for and with Ben, to learn from his experience, to share in his professional experiences and to enjoy his friendship. He was my mentor.

To better understand Ben, you need to understand his personal and professional background. Ben was born in Waynesfield, Ohio – a village of about 900 people in west-central Ohio. His family operated a printing shop there and, for a period, also farmed grain crops and raised dairy cows.

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Ben grew up in Waynesfield. He graduated as the class valedictorian, just as his father and grandfather did and his son and daughter would. Ben left Waynesfield for Yale College , graduating with a degree in linguistics. He then returned to his hometown.

After working for some time after his college graduation, Ben obtained his law degree from Ohio Northern University . He worked after graduation for National Farmers Organization and operated his own law practice, first part-time and later full-time after leaving NFO.

Ben’s legal career began like those of many small-town lawyers. He practiced some criminal law, some domestic relations law and a little bankruptcy work. He wrote his fair share of wills and trusts and he assisted in the formation of many small businesses.

But, unlike any attorney I’ve ever met, Ben also had an amazing knowledge and affinity for laws affecting dairy farming.

In an area that the federal courts have themselves characterized as “extraordinarily complex,” Ben built a niche practice that became the crux of his professional identity. With that abbreviated background, I am now privileged to reflect on just some of what I learned from Ben.

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1. There is no substitute for learning
Ben’s expertise in the complex world of dairy regulation arose out of his post-college job as a calculator salesman. I know that sounds confusing – a Yale graduate selling calculators. Ben’s degree in linguistics focused on contextual language.

In the early 1970s, computer programming courses were few and far between. But by studying contextual language and logic, Ben developed a skill in computer systems that he carried with him throughout his life.

Ben actually sold his logic, programming these calculators to solve customers’ complex problems. In the case of National Farmers Organization, Ben developed a program to replace the paper spreadsheets used to calculate producer payroll.

Before Ben could write the program, he immersed himself in learning and understanding the laws and regulations used to price milk. His earliest understanding of the Federal Milk Marketing Order system was driven by the need to create this payroll program.

Ben’s appetite for knowledge and understanding allowed him to extend his expertise to areas such as food labeling, First Amendment law, political behavior and countless other areas of personal and professional import. His overall success can be tied directly to that drive for understanding.

2. Deviate from your principles at your peril
Ben rarely, if ever, tried to portray himself as more than he was. He was a good and honest man, a smart attorney, a devoted husband and father, committed Christian and proud son of his small town.

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I had plenty of opportunities to see Ben become a bit stressed and even overwhelmed. The only occasion when I saw Ben regretful is when he felt as though his principles had been compromised. Similarly, when I sought Ben’s advice on a trying problem, he had two consistent points to share.

First, he would assure me, “You are smart and you know what to do.” It was his way of reminding me to stick to my principles. Second, he would inevitably add, “This too shall pass.” And it did.

3. Conquer procrastination by taking the first step
Everyone procrastinates. Attorneys are sometimes the worst offenders. Ben procrastinated his fair share, usually on small items that never seemed to rise to the top of the to-do list.

Here is how he snapped out of the rut. He had a “five-minute drill.” He would get together everything on his desk and start at the top of the pile. Each item received attention.

If it could be completed in five minutes, it got done right then. If it could be delegated, then he would spend five minutes jotting notes to the delegatee and assign the task right then.

As a brand-new lawyer working for Ben, many Monday mornings began by sorting through a stack of items I had been delegated.

4. Writing is critical to influencing others
Lawyers are writers. Good lawyers must have good writing skills to communicate their points effectively. Forget TV lawyers Matlock, Perry Mason or the Good Wife. Courtroom performance is important for litigators but real client problems are argued and solved through the written word.

Ben’s talent as an author extended beyond his law career. Ben was a Sunday School teacher who wrote his own material. He wrote for this magazine and before that wrote similar material for a regular newsletter of one of his clients. And we together wrote a book published earlier this year by the American Bar Association.

5. Philosophical opponents are not enemies; listen to them
Whether in writing his columns for Progressive Dairyman or advocating for his clients, Ben garnered his fair share of people who disagreed with him. Often these disagreements were charged and Ben was staunchly defensive of his opinions and the positions of his clients.

Early on, though, Ben taught me that when you stop listening to your opponents’ positions, you begin to lose your own. Ben was always willing to listen to others, regardless of disagreement. Many have said to me how they remember Ben’s friendship and collegiality in spite of a long-standing disagreement over issues.

6. Never forget the reason for your work
Especially in his dairy work, Ben never forgot that he was working for dairy farm families. His career began working for an organization of hundreds of small producers and ended with him representing some of the largest dairy farmers in the country.

Throughout his career, he was consistently an advocate for the producer. Unabashed and emotional, he worked tirelessly for his farmer clients. Ben took pride in representing the small farmer, the larger farmer, the prosperous farmer and the struggling farmer.

He bristled at the notion that some farm families were better or worse because of size (either large or small) and remained focused on his goal of assisting all of them.

7. Everyday people can teach you a lot
For living in rural Ohio his entire life, Ben rode in more than his fair share of cabs. Inevitably, a ride in a cab with Ben included engaging in conversation with the cabbie. The initial question was always a genuine “How are you today?” It was Ben’s invitation to mine the driver’s brain. The first few times I saw it happen, I was stunned.

The stories I heard were fascinating. Stories of hard-working people trying to help their families. Real political discussion. Stories of whatever city we might be in that I would have never heard otherwise. The majority of the time, it was uplifting. I’m still not as outgoing as Ben when the meter drops, but I try, and when I do the results are worth the effort.

8. Economic freedom underpins most others
I worked with Ben as a lobbyist as well as an attorney. Even in court, many of our cases involved constitutional issues. This article isn’t the place for a full philosophical discourse on economics and the law or on libertarianism.

Here it is enough for me to say for Ben, and based on my own observations, that he truly believed that the rights of all Americans to enjoy the freedoms we cherish are challenged through economic regulation.

That is not to say that Ben was an advocate for pure deregulation, whether personally or for his clients. But he deeply believed that when government exercised its power to impose economic regulation and create winners and losers, our freedoms were impinged.

9. The U.S. is the greatest country in the world
Shortly after the World War II Memorial opened at the National Mall, Ben gave a Memorial Day speech in Waynesfield. He eloquently reflected both on the sacrifice of our veterans and on the new monument. And he got emotional. I would see him get similarly emotional any time he spoke of the U.S. in a patriotic sense.

Ben was as proud an American as I have met. He did not serve in the military, yet had genuine respect for those who did. As a voracious reader, Ben spoke often with me about the founding of the country and the marvel of the founding fathers’ design.

10. Make family and friends your priority
Ben worked hard. During law school, he joked that he slept on weekends while balancing responsibilities to a wife, a young child, a job and law school. His law practice earned him literally millions of frequent flyer miles. But family and friends defined him.

In my final year of law school, I was near the top of my class. But I knew I did not want to work for a “big firm.” That’s when I found a classified listing that touted “a national practice in a small firm in west-central Ohio.” It turned out that Ben’s office was 30 miles from my wife’s hometown.

Location didn’t sell me, though. In fact, I had to convince my wife to “move back.” Neither did the salary, although Ben offered fair compensation. What sold me was that Ben promised, and expected, a balance between work and family. He prided himself on taking red-eye flights back from business meetings to see his son and daughter in school events.

To many in the dairy industry, Ben became our friend. To a few of his many friends, including myself, he also became a family member who taught us much and one whom we will miss tremendously. PD

Ryan Miltner
Miltner Law Firm LLC

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