IT’S TIME FOR YOUR YEAR-END PROFESSIONALISM CHECK-UP

December 22, 2010 § 1 Comment

The Christmas lull, that blessedly quiet period in the few days before and after Christmas, is a perfect time to catch up on matters that you kept shoving to the back burner for the past few months.

Like reassessing your professionalism.  Where you are in your practice and where you want to go.  How you’re doing.  Your strong and weak points.  What can you do to do a better job?   

So set aside a few minutes and ponder your own professionalism.  Here are a few points to start from:

  • “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will demean myself, as an attorney and counselor of this court, according to the best of my learning and ability, and with all good fidelity as well to the court as to the client; that I will use no falsehood nor delay any person’s cause for lucre or malice, and that I will support the Constitution of the State of Mississippi so long as I continue a citizen thereof.  So help me God.”  That’s the oath you took to practice law.  Ever stop to think why lawyers take an oath and folks in other lines of work do not?
  • I posted the Lawyer’s Creed and Aspirational Ideals here.  Re-read them and even keep a copy handy in the middle drawer of your desk.  Pull them out and read over them every now and again and assess how you’re measuring up.  You can find and print out or download them at the Mississippi Bar website
  • Re-Read the Rules of Professional Conduct from time to time.
  • Check out the bar’s resources for professionalism.
  • Take stock of where you are professionally.  Are you making your clients’ lives better, or are you just doing what it takes to get by?  Are you becoming the kind of lawyer you idealized when you decided to become a lawyer?  Are you adding something to your profession?  And are you treating your practice as a profession, or is it just another job?
  • If you have been practicing five years or less, have you found a mentor who is a competent attorney to rely on that attorney’s guidance and advice through thorny areas where you have doubts about how to do what you think needs to be done?
  • What are your ideals, and what are you doing to accompish them?

And here’s a thought for young lawyers:  Set aside an hour or so and thoughfully write the eulogy for your funeral.  Yes, the eulogy you’d like to have delivered at your funeral.  Include all the accomplishments and admirable traits you’d hope to have mentioned when your gone.  Stick it away in the back of a desk drawer and then set out to achieve those accomplishments and develop those admirable traits.  Why should you do this?  Because you are writing your own eulogy every day you live anyway, and you might as well be intentional about it.  Next year around this time, pull out that scrap of paper and reassess where you are.  Re-draft it if you like.   

And what about the day-to-day practice of law?

Lawyers are busy these days.  Too busy, maybe.  Today’s financial demands, compounded by spiraling overhead and household expenses, put tremendous pressure on attorneys to take on more and more work until they feel they can only succeed by adopting an assembly-line, boilerplate approach.

What concerns me about it, though, is that it seems to me that lawyers are less and less familiar with the law and the rules, relying on forms and old information to get by.  Sometimes I will call a rule to the attention of a lawyer and will find that the lawyer was not even aware of it.  Or I will point out a case and the lawyer is surprised that it exists.  There have been times that I am convinced that the lawyer knows nothing more about the procedure he or she is invoking than what is set out in the pleadings (that often are copied from someone else or are dredged up from the bowels of the lawyer’s own computer with little additional thought).  I know I’m painting with a broad brush here, but bear with me if you think this doesn’t really apply to you.  You may find a few nourishing morsels if you’ll take a few minutes out of your busy schedule to read the rest of this. 

Granted, the pressures of time for today’s practitioner are great.  Caseloads are far heavier, and the law has become more complex over time so that what used to be a “simple divorce” now requires much more attention.  Time has become more compressed for the family law practitioner.   The fourteen hour workdays and weekend work so common in my early career have given way to a more sane eight-to-ten hour day and fewer weekends that allow for time with and attention for spouses and children, but the compression of time means more concentrated demands. 

Have you noticed how many times on this blog that I mention the importance of reading and keeping up with changes to the code, case law and the rules?  I hammer away at it because it is not only essential to your success as an attorney, but also to the benefit of your client.  Too often we think of professionalism as ethics, but I challenge you to think of professionalism not only in ethical terms, but also in terms of competence and how you present yourself and represent clients.

Given all of this, I contend that it’s time to consider a few changes to the way you do business that will make you a better lawyer and make your clients more pleased with your performance.  And if you are doing one or all of these, more power to you.  Here they are:

  • Before you file your next probate matter, read the rules and look over the applicable statutes.  You will be amazed what you will find.  If nothing else, you will be shocked to see what a heavy load of responsibility you are taking on by signing and filing those pleadings.
  • For that matter, look back at the code the next time you file some familiar pleadings and look for changes you might have missed or some other little twist in the law you may have always overlooked. 
  • Carefully read over every pleading before it’s filed.  Be honest: you let your secretary do most of your pleadings, don’t you?  Do you know that they’re right?  Are they up to date?  Remember that everything you produce is a portrait of yourself. 
  • Read the appellate court decisions each and every week without fail.  Court of Appeals hand downs are on Tuesdays after lunch, and Supreme Court’s are on Thursdays after lunch.  As you run across case law that will help you in pending cases, print out the decisions and put them in those files for use in court. 
  • Read the rules.  Lawyers who know and follow the rules generally impress judges as better lawyers because, quite frankly, they are better lawyers, and better lawyers can get better results. 
  • Read the statutes.  Before you file that habeas, read the law.  If you’re wondering how to sell a parcel of real property in an estate, look for a statute in the code.  The answer to how to record and enforce a judgment is in the code.
  • Use your brain.  It seems to me that too many young lawyers want to get by with a fill-in-the-blank practice.  No innovative approach, no novel arguments based on sound research, no extra effort.  It’s so refreshing as a judge to see lawyer come into court with a soundly-prepared approach to a legal problem that is well supported by authority.  
  • Advise your client.  If you simply do what the client says to do, you are not a lawyer, you are merely your client’s alter ego with a license; you are a tool.  Guide your client in the right way to go.  Influence what your client wishes to do with your judgment and knowledge.  If your client demands you to do something unethical or questionable, try to persuade him or her to take another course, and if they refuse, file a motion to withdraw.  Tell your client up front what the chances of success are.  Never take on the cause of a client who is seeking vendetta as opposed to legal redress; the former is malicious, and the latter is justice.

These are merely a starting point.  As a lawyer you have a duty not only to your client, but also to advance the profession.  It only takes a little time and devotion each day.  And if you are not devoted to your profession, perhaps you need to find something else to do.

Professionalism requires not only that you zealously represent your client, but also that you do it competently. 

Take advantage of this quiet time and take a look at yourself and your career.  It will be a rewarding investment of your time.

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