Lawyers Journal

Renewing our commitment to professionalism

"As long as we are a people for whom the individual rights to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' are ‘inalienable' — that long will professional advocacy be prized and precious in our society. To advocate the cause of a client is actually to teach the law in a uniquely practical, effective, and individual manner. It requires an uncompromising integrity, a passionate desire for the truth, a practical respect for the law and the legal system, a broad and genuine understanding of the time in which we live, and, most of all, a love of life and humankind. In the United States, advocacy is a very special kind of teaching—indeed, a very special kind of caring for others. As attorneys, we are this nation's professional advocates, and guardians of individual human liberty and freedom under the law."
These words are a part of the preamble to the Massachusetts Bar Association Statement on Lawyer Professionalism adopted in May 1989. The principles contained within the statement were intended to express a commitment to our profession, each other and the people we serve. Our profession serves the public in unique ways and we must maintain a level of professionalism that befits the important work we do.

Roscoe Pound said, "…[professionalism] refers to a group…pursuing a learned art as a common calling in the spirit of public service… Pursuit of the learned art in the spirit of public service is the primary purpose." Eleven years have passed since the MBA Preamble on Lawyer Professionalism was adopted and the attention given to professional values have faded, but the shine can be recovered by renewing our commitment to a strong sense of service, values and pride. Some will ask, "How do I do that? Isn't it impossible?" We can do this by doing more than talking about the problems of our profession. This is a call to action to insure that civility, respect and positive moral values exist, thrive and become the only acceptable standard for those who practice law in this commonwealth and across our great country.

Justice Anthony Kennedy of the U. S. Supreme Court, in an address to the ABA, stated, "Civility is the mark of an accomplished and superb professional, but it is more than this. It is an end in itself. Civility has deep roots in the idea of respect for the individual. The legal profession has a special obligation to be rational and civil because we seek to bring order to an otherwise fractious debate. Rationality and civility ought to be two of the most important contributions the profession makes to the social order."
So, where do we start? We start with ourselves by renewing our personal commitment to the standards as set forth in the Massachusetts Bar Association's Statement on Lawyer Professionalism. We start by being courteous to our brothers and sisters and by expecting courtesy in return, including those on and off the bench. We continue with respecting ourselves and others, and expecting respect from others. We must recognize the various demands made upon each of us and should make reasonable accommodations in consideration of those demands. We must continue our education in order to maintain proficiency in the areas of law in which we practice. We must encourage our colleges and law schools to teach that advocacy does not preclude civility.

We are faced with a continuing challenge to apply the standards set out in the MBA Statement on Lawyer Professionalism to our own behavior and to the behavior of our clients. We must also expect that our colleagues and judges will apply the same standards and that our colleges and law schools will include these standards in their training of future lawyers. This is a call to action to all of us.

The next step in our quest to restore civility is to have a plan of action when the expectation of civility is not being practiced by a client, a judge, a colleague, or anyone else working within the system we have created in this country to search for justice. We must remind each other, when necessary, that the practice of law is a privilege reserved to only certain members of society. With this privilege comes high responsibility. Antagonistic or obnoxious behavior is not responsible. Being tardy to court or to a deposition or meeting is demeaning to those that are on time and to the profession. It is responsible to educate our clients or witnesses about proper courtroom decorum. It is not responsible to use hostile, demeaning or humiliating words in written or oral communication with lawyers, parties or witnesses.

I believe we must renew our commitment to professionalism each day. We have all experienced a day when opposing counsel was courteous, pleasant, on-time, prepared to move forward, dressed appropriately, their word was their bond, avoided personal criticism, stipulated to undisputed facts and expected civility. That was a good day. We need more of those good days.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association