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Driven by responsibilities

By James O. Heiting
President, State Bar of California

James O. Heiting

I was always trained to act and behave as an officer of the court. I have been educated, have taken examinations and have been mentored as an officer of the court. I have taken an oath to uphold and defend the constitutions under which we thrive as Americans and Californians. I am told that, as a lawyer, an attorney, a citizen with special privileges and responsibilities that the license carries, I am an officer of the court.

I have always believed that lawyers and judges, being part of and having roles in the judicial branch of the government, have an obligation to respect each other and to honor each other. It is an honor to be able to represent clients before the court, to argue cases and law, and to effect change where change is needed, to advocate for those propositions that serve to bring us closer to “justice,” to stand before the court as one seeking the court’s resolution of a dispute that could otherwise result in far more dramatic forms of “resolution,” the removal of a criminal from doing further harm, the exoneration of the innocent from threatened criminal sanction. As lawyers and judges, we are the glue that holds our society together.

Yet many of us have a mentality that falls far short of the lofty ideals that encompass the practice of law and judgment of the facts with application and interpretation of the law. Lawyers develop the mentality of “winning” at all costs, and judges the mentality of “management” (“administration” of justice.)

I am not saying that these trends are not driven by society, by economics, sometimes by necessity. Winning is great. The management of the courts that we experience now has been required by, among other things, the lack of sufficient court resources (numbers of judges being one such resource). I am saying that these are not the ideals of the law, and we must strive mightily to overcome these trends that serve as stumbling blocks to justice. But what can we do about it? We are just pawns in a bigger picture. We have no ability to effect change of this magnitude. Do we? Of course we do. So where do we start?

We start with the recollection of who we are and the responsibilities we carry. We remember those who came before and made extreme sacrifices in the furtherance of the goals and ideals that would lead to upholding the rights of our citizens, redressing wrongs and putting things right. When we say the Pledge of Allegiance, we recognize that “liberty and justice for all” is a work in progress and that we are each integral players in its progression, either forward or back.

We must have “the courage to change the things we can.” We must accept responsibility each time we have opportunity. With opportunity comes responsibility. “The longest journey starts with the first step,” even if the step is small.

I have learned, much credit to the Leo A. Deegin Inn of Court, that practicing with ethics and civility is a first step toward a better court system. I can still advocate effectively (probably more effectively) for my clients. A practice filled with mutual respect and civility not only is much more enjoyable, I find it more effective to my advocacy for my clients and to the ultimate resolution of the case. I still am able to win, even though I don’t practice in the hard-nosed, win-at-all-costs style I used to employ.

And one of the spinoffs of this type of practice is that the courts have more time to devote to deciding real issues and real disputes, not ones made up by bad attitudes and immaturity of lawyers embroiled in an epic struggle of egos. One small step toward a more effective court.

Ours is a noble profession, and we must differentiate between what we can do and what we should do. It is a profession that carries principles of honesty, integrity, public service, dispute resolution, problem solving, counseling, negotiating, peace making. Renewing the image of a lawyer as a problem solver (rather than a problem causer) would be one of the hoped-for results. Let us strive for liberty and justice for all in all that we do. Every effort makes a difference. Let’s go out and do some good.

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