Oregon State Bar Bulletin NOVEMBER 2014
Upon Taking the Oath:
More Than Magic Words
By Tom Kranovich
An attorney admitted to practice in this state is an officer of the court. ORS 9.010(1).
With the possible exception of a few of our senior members who graduated from law school without having first gone to college, most of us became officers of the court via a similar process. For at least the last 50 years, we have all been graduates of a four-year college. Indeed, some of us were the first in our family to do so. We all took the LSAT and many of us sweated out the admission process. Upon entering law school we were immersed in a culture and curriculum that likely was completely foreign. We started with classes such as torts and civil procedure for which our undergraduate experience provided little, if any, practical application, insight or assistance. Upon completing the core curriculum we went on to choose classes that we hoped would someday lead to an interesting and successful career. We studied, we persevered, we passed — only to be confronted with the bar review, the bar examination and the specter of being vetted by the bar’s character and fitness process. Having successfully completed all of that, we all took the final step: solemnly taking the oath that made us not just members of the bar but also officers of the court.
I (state your name) do solemnly swear that I will faithfully and honestly conduct myself in the office of an attorney in the courts of the state of Oregon; that I will observe and abide by the Code of Professional Responsibility approved by the Supreme Court of the State of Oregon; and that I will support the Constitution and laws of the United States and of the state of Oregon.
In my youthful ignorance, I viewed the oath as a pro forma event: magic words I had to utter to open the doors to my future — not unlike Sinbad’s “open sesame” or Hermione Granger’s “Alohomora.” In the years since, however, I have heard many others take the oath, either at swearing-in ceremonies for new admittees or at investitures for newly elected or appointed judges. As I grew older, each time I heard someone take the oath it had a more profound meaning than it did the time before.
Having seen the oath flaunted, forgotten or ignored, I now fully realize just how important honoring the oath is to our profession. I now know that each time someone breaches the sworn pledge made at the outset of their career, the rule of law suffers and the public’s confidence in our justice system erodes. Every time someone betrays the oath, our detractors have fodder — which they can and do use — to debase our noble profession.
Upon taking the oath one becomes a member in good standing of a bar with a long history of professional excellence and service; a bar with a decades-long commitment to highly collegial and ethical practices; a bar that actively promotes the rule of law and access to justice. Upon taking the oath one not only inherits the ideals, customs and goals of the Oregon State Bar; one becomes the caretaker and custodian of its values, its aspirations and most importantly, its collective professional reputation. The oath confers all the rights, responsibilities and obligations that being a member of the Oregon State Bar entails. Upon taking the oath, one becomes the bar’s future.
Like wedding vows, the attorney’s oath of office carries with it certain legal and social ramifications. Violation of either set of solemn vows has the potential for serious, sometimes life altering, ramifications. I suspect that most actionable violations of our oath of office innocuously start out as an oversight or an act of forgetfulness or carelessness with little, if any, conscious concern about crossing ethical lines. As we grow more experienced and confident I wonder if it is easy to become more comfortable with what we think we know and less questioning of what we really know. In the process of maturing as a lawyer, can we unwittingly begin a journey through a perverse ethical penumbra that can take us closer and closer to a regrettable point? If this be true, what can we do to avoid entry into the ever darkening grey area?
Certainly education and continuing education are keys. The more one knows and/or the more one double checks to be sure of what one thinks he or she knows, the less likely it is that there will be some sin of omission. We know that experience can sometimes lead to a complacency that trumps knowledge. By way of example, the age group causing the highest exposure to the Professional Liability Fund is lawyers with 15-20 years’ experience and not the plethora of newer admittees. While the number of disciplinary files opened over the last five years has remained flat we have seen calls to the client assistance office drop from 4,000 a year to 2,000. Anecdotally and coincidentally this may be due, in no small part, to the implementation of our mandatory mentoring program and the efforts of the Oregon New Lawyers Division and our sections in providing excellent continuing education opportunities.
I doubt that anyone gets up in the morning with the goal of violating their oath of office. How then do we avoid complacency and keep the oath fresh in our minds? I suspect that there is no universal answer. I do know, however, that in working with law students I see how badly they want that which I have come to take for granted: the ability to appear as a lawyer in any court in the state. Witnessing their desire renews my appreciation for the rights granted to me by my having taken the oath. Every occasion I have to read or hear the oath administered, it refreshes, in my mind, its power and promise.
Hearing someone take the oath is not unlike attending a wedding ceremony and hearing two people profess their allegiance and loyalty to each other. Even though I know that statistically 50 percent of all marriages fail, I witness each one with the certainty that this one will make it. Likewise when I hear someone take the attorney oath I leave with the certainty that it will be honored and obeyed. Whether it is a wedding or a swearing-in ceremony, I walk away with an appreciation for and commitment to my own vows and I celebrate the fact that others have dedicated themselves to the ideals of the institution.
Should we periodically gather and renew our vows as officers of the court? Would that help us honor both the letter and the spirit of the oath? Would it rekindle the aspiration to not only maintain-but to increase-the levels of professionalism and collegiality that make Oregon a unique place in which to practice law? If we do not do it formally and collectively, should we pledge to do it privately?
As a practical matter we carry out our oath of office by exercising professionalism and collegiality, by adhering to the rule of law and by honestly and ethically providing services that promote access to justice. These are among our bar’s proudest traditions. They are the heritage passed to each of us upon our taking of the oath. Through the power of the oath, they will be our legacy to the people of Oregon and to future generations of lawyers.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
OSB President Tom Kranovich practices law in Lake Oswego. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.