Oregon State Bar Bulletin — DECEMBER 2011
On Professionalism
Professional Goldfish:
Yearning for a Higher Standard
By Rachael Federico

Six years ago, I sat at a rectangular table with a dozen or so other students. Beneath the baseball caps and T-shirts were some of the best leaders on campus who had been selected as resident advisers. The director of our department greeted us warmly and then offered some unexpected news. “You are now all goldfish swimming in a goldfish bowl,” she said.

Her statement has stuck with me for two reasons. First, because I imagined my face awkwardly leading the scaled body of a lean koi. Second, and perhaps more importantly, because the senior resident adviser was summarily dismissed later that semester for drinking and vandalism — in concert with his underage residents.

I’ll concede that the lack of polish on this metaphor may render it less appealing. However, what the staff supervisors intended to get across was that we were models in our small community, and our behavior was visible to its members (and believe me, they were keenly watching). As it turns out, some students were eagerly awaiting a “slip up” as an excuse not to follow the rules themselves. After all, it is hard to expect others to do what we ourselves cannot and much easier for others to disregard our advice when we do.

As a second-year law student, I have found myself contemplating the “goldfish” standard once again. Professionalism has been espoused in course seminars and articles, ethics requirements and panel discussions. I’ve been asked to read various creeds of professionalism and bar association standards. I’ve been warned that a reputation once tarnished is very difficult to clean. I’ve heard it from judges, professors, career services staff and mentors practicing in Portland. Indeed, I have found myself in the proverbial fish bowl once more.

At the same time, I have heard of some terribly naughty behavior from the very community I aspire to join. The worst of these was an article relating how an attorney “belly bumped” a deponent. And then there are the tales of women attorneys who were asked, “Do you plan to have children?” during an interview. And the television commercial appealing to family law clients by offering to get rid of the “vermin you call your spouse.” And the high-priced attorney who continued to bill for time the client spent tearfully despondent about the dissolution of his marriage. And the attorneys who have “padded” hours because billing requirements have spun out of control. If one can “know” professionalism when she sees it, surely this simply isn’t “it.”

This (mis)behavior is visible to students before you might realize, and it makes me cringe. A first-year student expressed to me that she does not want to “lose her kindness” in law school or as a future practicing attorney. Her statement stuck out as both very wise and very distressing. I wonder how such a fundamental and inherent aspect of professionalism could ever be at risk (especially in a cross-section of the population who are supposed to be our best, brightest and most ethical). Then I remembered the senior resident adviser who was caught destroying ceiling tiles in a hazy drunken rage. Even after hearing the goldfish analogy, he supplied alcohol to his underage residents. They continued smashing school property even after his removal.

It is not surprising that professionalism is threatened. State bars are rapidly growing, leading to the temptation to use anonymity as an excuse to engage in less-than-top-notch behavior. At the same time, some clients create demand for “the junk yard dog” approach to counsel. Unprofessional conduct is apparent even at the highest level of our esteemed profession. Transcripts of trials and appellate arguments, including those at the Supreme Court, yield the startling trend of judges cutting off attorneys mid-sentence. It would seem that the art of active listening is simply becoming more the exception than the rule. However, at the end of the day, pointing fingers or lumping blame on the “bad apples” only goes so far. Students want to know that individual attorneys, judges, and justices are doing their part to ensure that the professionalism expected of us is the professionalism exemplified in our leaders.

Let me also share some of the good stories. I have wonderful mentors who have taken time to share their wisdom and advice over cups of coffee and bowls of noodles. I have read an article about an attorney who caused a costly delay in depositions but mailed a check to opposing counsel to compensate for his error. I have witnessed numerous attorneys and judges volunteer their time, money and skill to head panel discussions, mock interviews and networking events for law students, and head committees for bar associations. I have had the pleasure of meeting attorneys who take on pro bono cases and promote altruism in their community. I have seen impressive briefs that make strong arguments without any unprofessional attacks written between the lines. These models demonstrate how very noble a profession the law can be.

If the Oregon bar wants to produce lawyers who are both skilled at their future professions and the kind of folks everyone enjoys knowing, then students need to witness a higher standard more often than not. Please take a moment to reflect on the notion of “professionalism,” no matter how long ago you were a student, and no matter how many years you have been licensed. Students such as myself are looking to you to be our guides and our professional role models. We are observing and absorbing your conduct. The worst of it is being used in our classrooms as examples of “what not to do.” Your phone calls, emails, memos, briefs and court appearances are shaping our future practice and our professional lives.

Rachael Federico is a student (J.D. candidate, 2013) at Lewis & Clark Law School, focusing in immigration and public interest law. She is a student in U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Hubel’s Professionalism Seminar.

© 2011 Rachael Federico

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