California Bar Journal
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Professionalism or profits?
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President, State Bar of California
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Andrew J. GuilfordIn an earlier president’s column, I noted that one aspect of greatness is to selflessly serve others without expectation of profits, power, or prestige. In our century, this characteristic was reflected in the lives of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa, among many others. I believe the greatest person of the millennium is George Washington because he turned away from the trappings of power offered to him, thus preserving the great experiment in democracy that is America.

Anthropologists, economists, philosophers, poets, political scientists, historians and theologians may debate whether humans are essentially individualistic or communal. But there can be no debate about the wonderful things that happen when individuals act on behalf of the community.

A selfless commitment to the community over individual gain motivated students marching in Selma, and soldiers landing on the beaches of Normandy or confronting Marye’s Heights. I can best describe it as an ancient or even primordial sense of duty. It is a deep sense that places others above self.

There is no doubt that great things happen through selfless service. What do we call it when lawyers are willing to put the interests of the profession above the individual pursuit of profits, power and prestige, when lawyers selflessly serve their profession? The word for this is professionalism, and great things happen when lawyers selflessly serve their profession. As I look around the activities of the State Bar of California, I see so much good happening through the selfless service of attorneys without expectation of profits, power or prestige.

Many today say that professionalism is declining among attorneys. They say that we lawyers are turning away from professionalism in favor of profits. And I am sad to say that to some extent this is true.

As a young attorney in Los Angeles many years ago, I can remember hearing inspiring descriptions about outstanding lawyers. “Joe Ball, what a great trial lawyer. I’ll never forget the closing argument I heard him make. And he is a great guy too, always willing to give back.” Or, “Stan Mullin, what a fine counselor to his clients, always placing the interests of his clients above everything else, including his own personal gain.”

Too often these days, an attorney’s greatness is measured solely by the attorney’s book of business. “I hear Joe Blow has a $5.4 million book of business. And it’s all portable. I’ve never seen him in court or with clients, but wow!”

Because of my background, I am prone to analyzing the legal system through the prism of large law firms. Looking through that prism, I think one of the causes of this loss of professionalism is the high level of financial information we have been receiving about partner income since the late seventies. I am an economist by education, and I am not prone to complain when the market provides information to people wanting it. So we should not blame those providing the information. Instead, we should understand a modest motto that has meaning in my life: “The source of all unhappiness is comparison.” I have seen partners very happy with healthy six figure incomes — until they learn that someone else is getting more. We should review the blessings of others without making ourselves miserable through comparison. In the process, we might then focus less on ourselves and more on our community.

How has all this impacted the State Bar? Well, first is the fact that the State Bar Board of Governors with 20 or so members now has only one member from a large law firm. Perhaps this reflects an unwillingness somewhere for large firms to give back to the profession. It certainly is important to have people willing to serve the State Bar, particularly now with the growing limitations and financial restraints placed on the State Bar.

What are other issues facing the State Bar in a world of waning professionalism? Some have said the State Bar is anachronistic. They have said that we are a vestigial organization left over from the ancient world of guilds where tradesmen joined together to protect their pursuit of profits. And there is some truth to this. I frequently hear lawyers want-ing the State Bar to assist in the protection of lawyer pocketbooks. But now more than ever we can and must do more than that because of the important position we have in our community’s system of justice.

We are the principal players in the adversary system of justice that is our third branch of government. This makes us quasi-governmental agents, akin to legislators. The old phrase “officer of the court,” which I most frequently hear tossed about in unprofessional feuds between lawyers, thus takes on new meaning. We are officers of the court and agents of the third branch of government, and therefore, unlike any other profession, connected with the higher calling of service to the community, of putting others before self, of professionalism.

Thus, the State Bar of California, unlike other trade or even professional organizations, must fulfill its charge of supporting and improving our system of justice in the state of California. This is the high calling of professionalism. At the State Bar, we are striving to promote some of the aspirations of professionalism, such as encouraging pro bono work, improving civility, protecting our core values in a world of changing markets and technology, and promoting the recognition that we are a com-munity of lawyers in the all-important third branch of government.

Part of the wonderful opportunities to promote professionalism as president is to write columns such as this. I have attempted here to describe the higher calling that awaits us, and I ask you to join with me in the pursuit of the higher calling of professionalism.