The Honorable Profession

March 23, 2015 § 1 Comment

A piece on a law listserv recently talked about the popular perception of lawyers as dishonest, and contrasted it with Abraham Lincoln’s reputation as an honest lawyer and politician.

What caught my eye in the short essay was this quote from Mr. Lincoln:

There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest…the impression is common, almost universal. Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief—resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.

I don’t know about his characterization as “vague.” These days, My impression is that the popular belief is more vivid than vague.

And who can blame folks, what with the several lawyer scandals that have made headlines. Thank goodness for the financiers, securities frauds, and members of congress who have bumped the legal profession off the unpopularity bulletin boards lately.

One thing that strikes me in Mr. Lincoln’s statement is that juxtaposition of the words “necessarily dishonest.” That usage is fraught with meaning. It conveys that, in order to do one’s job as a lawyer, it is necessary to be dishonest. Is that the popular conception? That’s what pop culture would suggest. There is, after all, a television series in which a law professor teaches students about how to skirt and violate the law and get away with it (that’s my impression; I haven’t bothered to watch any episodes). I guess I could go on and on, but you could also, so I’ll leave it at that.

I think the vast majority of lawyers strive mightily to be not only honest, but also honorable. You can not be one without the other.

Honesty and honor are two closely related concepts. In fact, their root words are the same:

“Honesty” derives from the Old French (h)oneste, which in turn derives from the Latin honestas. The Latin noun was formed from the adjective honestus, likely deriving from honos, “honor,” which is of uncertain etymology. The Roman linguist Varro suggested onus, “burden,” as the root of honos, as if honor weighs us down morally. In his encyclopedic work Etymologiae, likely composed in the seventh century of the Common Era, Isidore of Seville defined honestas as honor perpetuus, literally “perpetual honor,” and then more straightforwardly as honoris status, “the condition or state of honor.” Around 1930, the classical philologist T. G. Tucker suggested that the root of honos was *ghen-, to “make big, full,” but a definitive derivation remains elusive. The first definition of honestas given by the Oxford Latin Dictionary is “Title to respect, honourableness, honour,” followed by “Moral rectitude, integrity,” in which sense it was frequently opposed to utilitas, “expediency.” Cicero refers to a dissensio, or conflict, between the two, and Horace praises Lollius for preferring the honestum to the utile. Less frequently honestas was used in the sense of “Decency, seemliness,” one of the early secondary senses of “honesty” in English. [From In Character]

So, to get down to the root of it, the honest person is worthy of being honored, is perpetually bearing the burden and responsibility of being honest, morally right, with integrity, decency, and seemliness. The dishonest person is dishonorable, unencumbered by rectitude, lacking integrity, expedient, indecent, unseemly.

Of course, the concept of dishonesty has many shades. On one extreme is outright deceit. On the other is lack of candor and dissimulation. Every action between those two brackets is dishonest.

With honesty comes credibility. I can tell you as a fact-finder in court that evasiveness and dissembling take almost as heavy a toll on one’s credibility as out-and-out lying. A mere tinge of dishonesty can tarnish one’s honor. Even an appearance of impropriety can be fatal.

Thanks to Winky Glover

§ One Response to The Honorable Profession

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