To me, the essence of
professionalism is a commitment to develop one’s skills to the fullest and to
apply [them] responsibly to the problems at hand. Professionalism requires
adherence to the highest ethical standards of conduct and a willingness to
subordinate narrow self-interest in pursuit of the more fundamental goal of
public service. Because of the tremendous power they wield in our system,
lawyers must never forget that their duty to serve their clients fairly and
skillfully takes priority over the personal accumulation of wealth. At the same
time, lawyers must temper bold advocacy for their clients with a sense of
responsibility to the larger legal system which strives, however imperfectly, to
provide justice for all.
U.S. Supreme Court
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
What Is Attorney Professionalism?
Definitions of attorney professionalism abound; here's one that is worth your consideration. Attorney Professionalism is dedication to service to clients and commitment to promoting respect of the legal system in pursuit of justice and the public good, characterized by ethical conduct, competence, good judgment, integrity and civility.
Of primary importance to anyone practicing law is dedication to service to clients. A self-explanatory concept, service to clients is the foundation of professionalism.
That service must be performed with the recognition that the attorney and client comprise just one aspect of the legal system. Whether you consider adversaries, opposing counsel, fellow practitioners, judges, clerks, partners, government agencies, or legislatures, the faces of the legal system are many. Yet we are all human beings, and our commitment to promoting respect for laws, the processes of the legal system and each other must be a hallmark of our behavior.
In our work to serve our clients while promoting respect for the legal system, we do so in the pursuit of justice and the public good. In the strictly legal sense, justice can mean the "proper administration of laws. . . to render every man his due." (Black's Law Dictionary). But most would agree that justice necessarily implies more than the "rightness" or "wrongness" of a given act, or strict compliance with the black letter of the law. In the larger sense, pursuing justice connotes pursuing a morally "good" end. Attorneys must look beyond the short-term results and consider the consequences of their actions and advice. To conduct oneself in this way will benefit the public at large—and, to do the public good—must include dedication to providing pro bono services for the needy.
How, then, may we exhibit attorney professionalism?
- By exemplary ethical conduct: aspiring to fulfill the spirit, not just the requirements of the Code of Professional Responsibility/Rules of Model Conduct;
- By remaining competent: taking advantage of continuing legal education; keeping abreast of the latest developments in our areas of expertise; mentoring younger attorneys;
- By showing good judgment: providing good client service by formulating discerning opinions and advice based upon knowledge and experience;
- By acting with integrity: exhibiting soundness of character, fidelity and honesty;
- By demonstrating civility: behaving with courtesy and respect.
You will notice that the foregoing discussion contains no mention of making money. Many lawyers are better paid than others who work in other fields. The perception that many lawyers are obsessed with making money, to the detriment of clients, is a stumbling block which stands in the way of the public's acceptance of the reality of attorney professionalism. Change in public perception will have to be incremental, but conduct adhering to the definition of attorney professionalism should bring about that change.