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Bar News - November 9, 2007

Professionalism: Our Noble Profession



Kenneth J. Barnes

The law is a noble profession, and has been for hundreds of years.  It is noble in that lawyers use their training and skills to help clients achieve their goals, consistent with the law.  Lawyers channel disputes into the legal system, which governs the balance between individuals and the greater society in which they live, making it possible for millions of individuals with conflicting interests to live together and resolve disputes in a rational, fair, and (more or less) consistent manner, without resorting to violence.


The nobility of the law stems, too, from its egalitarianism.  No person – no matter how rich, how well-born or how powerful – is above the law; everyone must answer to it.  (See United States v. Nixon; Clinton v. Jones; U.S. v. Leona Helmsley for examples of this principle.)   Likewise, any person – no matter how poor, how marginalized, or how despised – is entitled to vindicate her/his rights in the courts and to be treated fairly therein.  (See Brown v. Bd. of Education; Miranda v. Arizona; National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie; Goldberg v. Kelly.)


As noble as the law is, its practitioners are professionals, in the truest sense of the word.  Everyone knows that, in order to obtain a license to practice law, one must acquire a large body of knowledge through extensive academic study.  But more importantly, the practice of law requires adherence to a code of ethics that goes well beyond the obligations of other types of workers.                 

Lawyers are held to standards of service that require quality (competence), honesty, and a fiduciary duty of loyalty to the client.  We must advocate vigorously on behalf of our clients’ interests; avoid any conflicts with our own interests; preserve client confidentiality; and, of course, scrupulously protect clients’ money and other assets.  We must apply our independent judgment to our work, and not blindly follow the instructions of our clients.  Sometimes we have to educate our clients about unanticipated ramifications of their initial instructions.  We are officers of the court, and must do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. 


Even beyond the Rules of Professional Conduct – which we are required to follow on pain of losing our licenses to practice law – attorneys should strive (and most attorneys do strive) to govern their conduct in accordance with standards of professionalism.  Those standards go beyond the above-mentioned mandatory requirements of the ethical rules, which set forth the minimum standards for our conduct as lawyers.


The concept of professionalism envisions that we go beyond the minimum and strive instead to maximize what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the content of our character.”  We do this by acting with civility instead of hostility, by cooperating instead of stonewalling, and by treating everyone (including opposing parties, their counsel, court personnel and witnesses) with respect and fundamental decency.  We demonstrate our professionalism by comporting ourselves with integrity, by underpinning all our decisions with fairness, by remembering that we are what the general population sees when they think about “the justice system.”  Perhaps, in today’s world, my point can be made best by reference to television and the movies.  Many of the “lawyers” acting on TV in legal programs are complying with the canons of ethics.  But virtually none of them are as professional as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.  We should all try to be more like Atticus Finch and less like Denny Crane (Boston Legal).


Most members of the New Hampshire Bar bend every effort to be as professional as they can possibly be.  And for the most part, we are successful.  The Bar Association created a Professionalism Committee in 1999 in order to remind our members, on a regular basis, of their commitment to excellence and their commitment to professionalism.  The Committee also helps imbue the Bar’s newer members with a sense of “the New Hampshire way,” which places a heavy value on professionalism.  The Professionalism Committee is still active today, and I am proud to serve as its Chair.


The most visible task of the Professionalism Committee is organizing a statewide Professionalism Day program every year.  The program brings together hundreds of lawyers from all around the state to analyze and discuss particular issues relating to professionalism.  We do this in a spirit of camaraderie, of mutual respect and learning.  The discussions are usually quite lively and stimulating, with much give and take among all the lawyers present.


Professionalism Day 2008 will continue this Bar tradition, but with a fresh approach.  The program’s format will be very different from anything we’ve produced in the past.  The focal point of the program will be “Humorist-at-Law” Sean Carter.  Several Bar members and staff have seen Sean perform at previous meetings of the New Hampshire Bar and of the New England Bar.  They report that Sean is fantastic: hilarious and fun while also conveying important messages about practicing law.


For those of you who have never attended a Professionalism Day event, for those of you who simply think of a discussion of professionalism as a stodgy subject with no relevance to your life, and for those of you who assume that the program is geared only to the “gray-hairs” of the Bar, I urge you to consider checking this out.  I’m confident that you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


I will provide additional details of Professionalism Day 2008 in an upcoming issue of Bar News.  Until then, please mark your calendars with the date — the morning of February 15, 2008, held in conjunction with the 2008 Midyear Meeting.


I will leave you with two ways that your colleagues described professionalism in previous Professionalism Day programs: 


“If you would be uncomfortable reading about your actions in the Union Leader, or telling your mother about what you did to further your clients’ (or your own) interests, then you shouldn’t be doing those things.”


“Know the difference between right and wrong, and have the courage to do what’s right.” 


Ken Barnes is chair of the Bar’s Professionalism Committee, and an attorney at Upton & Hatfield, LLP in Concord.




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