Ensuring self-respect

by Jerome J. Shestack

The ABA today is very serious about advancing professionalism. Our profession’s standing with the public is not stellar. Our profession is more commercial and crass. Our values seem fragile and often suspect.

We could use a moment to reflect. Didn’t we become lawyers to be part of a learned and noble profession? The best definition I know is that the lawyer is an “expert in the law pursuing a learned art in service to clients and in the spirit of public service; and engaging in these pursuits as part of a common calling to promote justice and the public good.”

Here are the elements of professionalism that I believe define our calling.

1. Fidelity to ethics and integrity. Ethical rules should not be a confinement, but a meaningful commitment — in the spirit of enlarging and enhancing one’s adherence to the integrity of the profession.

2. Service to clients with competence and dedication — as well as independence. Independence is part of the lawyer’s calling. Much of the reason so many lawyers face malpractice suits is that they do not have the wisdom and fortitude to say “no” to a client when “no” should be said.

3. Meaningful legal education. This is not a chore to meet some point requirement but a commitment to growth and replenishment.

4. Civility. We need to resist the Rambo-type tactics in which civility is mocked and ruckus is routine. Civility is more than surface politeness; it is an approach that seeks to reconcile conflict, to diminish rancor and to reduce the antagonisms and aggressiveness of an adversarial society for a more civilized condition. As Justice Anthony Kennedy recently put it, “civility is respect for the dignity and worth of a fellow human being.” It is an end in itself.

5. Commitment to improve the justice system and advance the rule of law. Our system of justice is overcrowded, underfunded and dilatory. The independence of judges is at risk. Today, access to justice is too often denied. There seems to be a war against the poor, but as someone wryly observed, without lawyers, the poor are too weak to fight back.

The justice system is our trust and our ministry. We bear the brunt of public dissatisfaction with the justice system’s flaws and deficiencies. It is the obligation of every lawyer to make a limping legal structure stride upright.

6. Pro bono service. There are many reasons for such service, apart from the common decency of helping those in need. Much has been given to our profession; it seems right to give something back — indeed, it is an ethical obligation. If we are a profession committed to justice, then we should want to participate in making justice accessible. Finally, pro bono service almost always turns out to be a matter of great satisfaction in a profession that has its share of pain and tedium.

These six elements are the foundation of our professional values. I have asked every entity in the ABA to focus on these values.

We need the assistance of the state and local bar associations to help us advance and enhance these values as mainstays of our profession.

Pursuing professionalism requires constancy, commitment and all the resources available within the organized bar.

Let’s hope that by being true to our professional values, we can help renew public confidence in our profession. At the very least, we can ensure our own self-respect.

Jerome J. Shestack is president of the American Bar Association.