July 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Mississippi Bar Association annual meeting commences today in faraway, sunny Florida.  I thought this would be a propitious time to look back more than a hundred years at the proceedings of the association in its earliest days.

On May 5-7, 1908, the Mississipi State Bar Association held its third annual meeting in Meridian.

Various papers were presented, among them “Railroads and the People,” Suggestions of Error, Legal and Otherwise,” “Reminiscences of a Few Mississippi Lawyers,” and “The Power of the Courts.”

The convention even adopted a resolution that, because their presence would “lend grace and dignity to its annual meeting and wisdom of its deliberations,” members in future were “invited to attend sessions accompanied by their wives, daughters, sisters and sweethearts as the condition may then exist.”  That language of that resolution sounds patronizing to us more than a century later, but we need to keep in mind that lawyers in those days were, if not exclusively male, almost exclusively male, and their language reflected not only that reality but also the more patriarchal usages of the day, which used the masculine gender to denote the general, as the text below shows.

Another of the papers delivered at that meeting was by Meridian’s own S. A. Witherspoon, who spoke on “The Lawyer’s Mission in Life.”  The language is perhaps too flowery for todays tastes, but the message is no less relevant and thoughtful now than it was 102 years ago.  It is too long to reproduce in its entirety, but here are some excerpts:

  • ” … if the exigencies of [the lawyer’s] professional duties do not lead him into the investigation of the truth and require the exercises of his powers in maintaining the cause of justice, and demand the aid of his influence in establishing the great law of love between man and man, then the lawyer’s life work is at war with his better nature, and deterioration instead of development must be his certain doom.”
  • “… in the solution of all political, social and religious problems that affect the happiness of humanity [lawyers] have been found in the front ranks, and the cause of freedom, justice and morality has found in them its most devoted and ablest advocates.”
  • “The strife, contention and never ending warfare of the lawyer’s life may conceal from the casual observer its logical relation and productive tendency toward the peace, goodwill and love among men, but it should be remembered that the legal battle which he constantly wages merely takes the place of violence and bloodshed of the barbarian, and that the lawyer in civilized life simply confines the fighting, which seems to be a necessity of humanity, within the ranks of his own profession, and this relieves his fellow men of the evils of human warfare.”
  • “But the prominent feature of the lawyer’s work is the problem of truth, and his greatest difficulty is measured by its laborious discovery.”
  • “And the light of his truth, streaming through all the walks of human life, as distinctly marks the lawyer’s mission as does the warmth and light that gives life and beauty to the flowers and defines the mission of the sunbeam.”
  • “The mission of the lawyer is not confined to the court room and does not end when the decree or judgment of the court is placed on the minutes, but it extends into all the affairs of men, and finds its last boundary at that point where his service is not needed for the betterment of humanity.”
  • “The professional duties of the lawyer develop in him a capacity for the ascertainment of truth, a power to explain and expound it to others, and the art and ability to advocate the cause of justice, and to win the triumph of right; and the possession of any power involves the duty of exercising it for the good of others.  He has no right to bury his talent, or to hide his candle under a bushel.  Whatever advantage and superiority he may enjoy over his fellow men is the result of his relation to society and the special privileges which it has granted him.  And, therefore, I say that in all the religious, moral, social, and industrial controversies that divide the people, the lawyer is obliged to take part, and to give them the benefit of whatever wisdom and virtue he may possess.”

Excerpted from “The Mississippi Bar’s Centennial: A Legacy of Service,” 2006 by the Mississippi Bar.

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