The Honor and Dignity of the Profession
April 3, 2018 § 6 Comments
Not long ago I was asked to say a few words to the Ole Miss Law students who were being sworn in for limited practice in the school’s legal clinics. Alas, I got carried away and said more than a few words, as some of us older lawyers are wont to do. I thought you might find some value in them as you toil about in your daily practice.
You may be asking yourself: Why all this folderol about taking an oath? Why don’t we just get on with it, roll up our sleeves and get to work? Well, I want to give you an idea about it.
When I entered the practice of law nearly 45 years ago, the law was known as a noble profession. A term often heard was that the law was an “honorable profession.” Since then the profession has suffered many bumps and bruises. No need to catalog them here. Misconduct and allegations of misconduct by members of the legal profession from the US Supreme Court to the level of sole country practitioner and everything in between have occurred with dismaying frequency.
Add to this that we are in a cynical era where notions like nobility and honor are openly questioned and even laughed at. So, does this mean that the law is no longer to be considered an honorable profession? Is the concept of honor to be set aside as outmoded and anachronistic?
To decide that we first have to understand what honor is.
One aspect of honor is esteem. We honor and exalt those whose merit makes them worthy of our due regard. Whether the law today still merits the respect and esteem of the public is a subject of debate and analysis beyond the scope of this little talk.
Rather, I would like to focus on the concept of the law as a rule in this nation that relies on the individual honor of its members of its profession and those who invoke it. The law as an honorable profession in the sense that its bedrock and very heartbeat is honor.
And what is honor? Pat Conroy said in The Lords of Discipline that, “I have never had to look up a definition of honor. I knew instinctively what it was. It is something I had the day I was born, and I never had to question where it came from or by what right it was mine. If I was stripped of my honor, I would choose death as certainly and unemotionally as I clean my shoes in the morning. Honor is the presence of God in man.”
Others have said that Honor is like the eye, which cannot suffer the least impurity without damage. It is a precious stone, the price of which is lessened by a single flaw. And this is not to say that honor is easily come by. It has been said that the price of honor can never be too dear, for it is the only thing whose value must ever increase with the price it has cost us.
We think of honor as incorporating Honesty, Fidelity, Candor, Selflessness, Truthfulness, and respect both for the rule of law and the personal dignity and worth of every person, friend and foe alike, with whom we come in contact. We think of an honorable person as one who has integrity, self respect, and dignity. The honorable person is never arrogant or crafty, never seeks an unfair advantage or to lord it over others, never deviates from the truth even when a lie would be to her or her client’s benefit.
Honor is at the very core of what a lawyer and judge must be. Lincoln said
There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest…the impression is common, almost universal. Let no young person 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.
If you will read the Canons of Professional Conduct – our ethical rules – every one is based on the concept of personal honor and honesty.
The founders of our republic recognized the vital importance of honor. In the very last phrase of the Declaration of Independence, they “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor.” Not just honor, but sacred honor.
In the spirit of our founders lawyers and judges stand guard over and fight to protect individual rights and the Constitution that guarantees them. With the founders we stake our honor – our sacred honor – on that proposition. No other profession does, and no other group of citizens does, save the military and those who swear to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.
As for today’s rampant and unfortunate cynicism, C.S. Lewis noted that, “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” Indeed, when we attack and debase the concept of honor, we should expect the vacuum to be filled with the dishonorable and dishonest. You can not scrap a virtue and not expect it to be replaced by a vice.
So that’s why in a few moments you are going to raise your hand and take an oath to represent your clinic clients well and to the best of your ability. To protect their interests and to submit your own interests to theirs. In other words, you are staking your honor on your pledge of fidelity to your client.
If you – or anyone in a legal setting – takes an oath with the intention of not backing it up with honor, then it means nothing, and the law is diminished by that act. The law and the rule of law rely exclusively on the personal honor of everyone who seeks to invoke it.
This small act, this oath, is only among the first of many hundreds, even thousands, that you will take or see being taken over the span of a career in the law. It’s easy to become jaded and complacent about it. But I urge you as you move toward your entry into the legal profession never to lose your personal honor, and never to allow the law to be dishonored.
So yes, this oath is a small thing and a bit of folderol. But it means something. It means a lot. It really, truly does. And I hope each of you believes and lives that along with the thousands of us who serve the law.