Why we should care
By Nena Cook
[The following excerpts are taken from a speech Ms. Cook delivered to the third- year law students at Willamette University College of Law on March 2, 2005.]
A new beginning
It is my great privilege to be with you today to discuss what may be every lawyer’s biggest challenge, upholding the honor and dignity of our profession. As third-year law students in the final months of your formal education, I know you are focused on getting through that last law school exam, finishing up a final paper and then studying for and ultimately passing the bar exam. It must seem like just yesterday when you were all gathered here, probably in this very room, for your first-year orientation when you heard from a number of prominent members of the bar, including most notably Chief Justice Carson, discussing with you the importance of professionalism. At the time, you were probably uncertain about the road that lay ahead in law school and even less concerned about how you would conduct yourself after graduation.
Now, here you are on the eve of graduation. When you pass the bar later this year, you will become part of the great Willamette tradition of graduating "the best and the brightest" who are equally prepared for the intellectual rigors of the practice of law and for overcoming the challenges and obstacles that others may attempt to place in your way.
Before your focus turns outward, let me share with you a few thoughts on the one thing that ultimately matters the most in our careers. The standard by which we measure success is not how much money we make, how many cases we win, or the size of the deals we close. Our value to this profession and the legacy we leave behind are measured by one thing. That one thing is our professionalism. The privilege to practice law brings with it the corresponding obligation to represent our clients within the bounds of the law, treat our adversaries with respect and maintain our candor with the judiciary.
The real world
I wish I could tell you that every lawyer in this state practices law in a way that honors our profession. I wish I could tell you that I have never experienced any other lawyer behaving unprofessionally. I certainly wish I could tell you that over the course of my career, I have never thought about engaging in conduct that might be deemed less than ideal.
What I can say is that the vast majority of lawyers honor our Statement of Professionalism. They know that every interaction with opposing counsel, every phone call, every court appearance and every deal closure demands our renewed dedication to the tenets of that statement. They understand that their integrity and honesty cannot vary with the circumstances of a particular case. As long as those characteristics remain inviolate, we will enjoy the practice of law, make tough decisions more easily and better serve the needs of our clients.
Unfortunately, we still have lawyers who believe that intimidating, rude and obnoxious behavior can somehow achieve the results their clients want. These are the lawyers who cannot distinguish between zealous advocacy and disrespect or incivility. I have heard many times that it is the "inexperienced lawyers" or the "younger generation" that engages in these tactics, but I have seen them exhibited as often in "experienced" lawyers.
Why it matters
My point is simply this. Clients come and go. Cases are won and lost. Fees are awarded or denied. You will spend your entire career building your reputation and it can come crashing down with either a momentary lapse in judgment or through a pattern and practice of abusive behavior. Do not let it happen to you. Even with 12,500-plus active lawyers in the Oregon State Bar, we are still a bar that expects its members to maintain the highest standard of professional decency and respect. I hope we always will.
You will always remember
As you begin your career, you will immediately recognize those lawyers who believe in fostering respect and trust among lawyers, who promote the efficient resolution of disputes and who value the code of civility. You will appreciate it when the judge suggests another way you might get something into evidence. You will always value and respect the opposing counsel who instead of reflexively taking a default, calls to tell you that even though you missed a deadline, she will give you a few more days. You will be grateful to the colleague at work who gently reminds you of the importance of returning client phone calls. As you advance in your careers, do the same for others.
Maintaining this professional integrity is not just something litigators aspire to; we must all share in that common goal. Some of you will become partners in law firms, or will attain leadership positions in government or non-profit advocacy organizations, and you will have the good fortune to mentor young lawyers. They learn from you. If you are less than candid with opposing counsel, advise a client to withhold information or are disrespectful to the organization’s legal secretaries and other employees, they may adopt the same approach.
For those of you who will become judges, you must enforce the rules of professional conduct and confront those who violate those rules. As the ultimate arbiter of inappropriate behavior, you alone will have the power to discourage abusive discovery and trial tactics.
Many of you will use your law degree for something other than practicing law. Whether you participate in the private business sector, teach or find your calling in something totally unrelated to the practice of law, you can always be proud you are a lawyer. When you hear the lawyer jokes, remember that lawyers are those who hold corporations accountable when they poison our environment, that lawyers fight the government when it attempts to restrict our civil liberties, and it is lawyers who prosecute those most dangerous in our society.
Years ago, a senior lawyer recounted to me the one regret he harbored over the course of his long and storied career. He enjoyed his nearly 40 years of law practice, but during his first 25 years of practice, he failed to treat people with the respect and dignity they deserved. He frequently yelled at his staff and the associates who assisted him, and at times actually threw things when he was upset. That all changed when he had his first grandchild. Once he saw her, he said he could never imagine anyone ever treating her badly or hurting her feelings. He then realized that was exactly what he had done to the grandchildren of others. No matter how many awards he won or big deals he closed, he could never overcome his biggest regret.
As I was growing up in the great state of Utah, I remember seeing a billboard sponsored by the Mormon Church that read, "No other success can overcome failure at home." I think they were right, even in the professional context. No accolades or accomplishments can ever overshadow the importance and utter satisfaction of maintaining the highest standards of ethical conduct and professionalism. If you fail that, then nothing else you accomplish really matters.
As you embark on your legal career, whether it ultimately lasts a lifetime or a few short years, be mindful to maintain a philosophy and uphold a standard of conduct that earns you the greatest respect among your colleagues, clients and adversaries alike. If you let this principle guide your way, you will certainly be remembered for your contributions to the law, but even more importantly, for the lives you touched and your commitment to the ideals of professionalism.
I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors and welcome you to this, the most noble of all professions.
The OSB STATEMENT OF PROFESSIONALISM
In January 1991, the Oregon Supreme Court approved the Oregon State Bar Statement of Professionalism. Here is an excerpt from the preamble:
"As members of the Oregon State Bar, we belong to a profession devoted to serving both the interests of our clients and the public good. In our roles as officers of the court, as counselors, and as advocates, we aspire to a professional standard of conduct. With adherence to a professional standard of conduct, we earn a reputation for honor, respect, and trustworthiness among our clients, in the legal community, and with the public.
• • • • •
"Professionalism includes integrity, courtesy, honesty, and willing compliance with the highest ethical standards. Professionalism goes beyond observing the legal profession’s ethical rules: professionalism sensitively and fairly serves the best interests of clients and the public. Professionalism fosters respect and trust among lawyers and between lawyers and the public, promotes the efficient resolution of disputes, simplifies transactions, and makes the practice of law more enjoyable and satisfying."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nena Cook is president of the Oregon State Bar and serves on the Oregon Bench and Bar Joint Commission on Professionalism. She can be reached at (503) 227-1111 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2005 Nena Cook