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Bar News - June 17, 2015

Opinion: Lead with Integrity, and Turn Down the Noise


Hon. Carol Ann Conboy
NH Supreme Court Justice Carol Ann Conboy Delivers Commencement Address at UNH Law

Editor’s Note: At the University of New Hampshire School of Law Commencement in Concord on May 16, NH Supreme Court Associate Justice Carol Ann Conboy delivered the commencement address. Conboy, along with Cathy Greene and Sherilynn Young, received an honorary doctorate of law during the ceremony. What follows are Conboy’s remarks, edited for publication in print.

President Huddleston, Dean Budd, distinguished faculty, honored guests, and the class of 2015:

Please know how privileged I feel to be standing before you on this special day. When I started my studies at this unique law school 40 years ago, I could not have dreamed that I would be given this extraordinary honor. Thank you.

Sherilynn Young, founder and president of Rath, Young and Pignatelli of Concord, receives an honorary degree from UNH Law, where she received her law degree in 1982. NH Supreme Court Justice Carol Ann Conboy, in addition to giving the commencement address, also received an honorary degree, along with Cathy Green, a 1977 graduate and criminal defense attorney who is now a partner at Green & Utter.
Class of 2015 – As you know, I stood before you nearly three years ago, on your first day of law school. My job was to administer an Oath of Professionalism. You may have thought it odd (or even “hokey”) that you would be asked to take such an oath at the very start of your legal studies. But, I trust that, looking back, all of you now know there was nothing odd (or hokey) about making those promises to me, to each other, and to the profession.

Do you recall what I told you that day? I said that during your law school years you would be learning your new role in our society. But as you did so, people would regard you as already serving in that role. That from that day forward, you would represent our profession – you would be a standard-setter, a leader.

I told you that you did not have the luxury of assuming that just because you were students, you would not be held to a higher standard – that whether in church or the supermarket, you would be on stage at all times. I told you that the broader community would hold you to the standards governing those of us who have the privilege of representing and speaking for others.

My advice extended to such esoteric admonitions as: Think before you speak; sit up straight, stand up straight, practice speaking in complete English sentences. I told you that as the wordsmiths of our society, Twitter talk just wouldn’t do. I even gave you a pop quiz! All of you can now, with confidence, correctly spell the word, “Judgment” – even though Planet Fitness’s “judgement free zone” contains that pesky “e.”

I also explained that learning the law is a process, and that you should not expect that your professors would be pouring into your empty heads the law you would need to take the bar exam. I told you that learning the law, and learning to think like a lawyer, involved talking with each other, arguing with each other, pushing back, taking some intellectual hits. And that you could not do this hiding behind your laptop covers.

My overarching message, though, was that in preparing yourselves to be counselors of the law, paramount was protection of your integrity. Recently, the Union Leader interviewed Jack Middleton, my former senior partner and mentor at the McLane law firm. Attorney Middleton has been an esteemed member of the New Hampshire Bar for nearly 60 years. He was asked what traits make a good lawyer. His answer tells it all: “The first would be integrity….”

When you took your oath that day three years ago, you promised to conduct your academic and professional life to promote justice and to uphold the principles of honesty, respect, civility, and integrity. Those promises hold today.

Now, I am not so naïve as to believe that keeping those promises will be easy. You will not be immune from the pressures of our profession and society. You will not be spared the frenetic pace that has come to characterize American business and family life. And you will not be relieved of the deluge of cyber information that can seem crushing. My advice? Turn down the “noise.”

I’m referring to:

The noise created by demanding clients who truly believe that a lawyer is a hired gun; the noise created by the pressure to market oneself and generate business; the noise of those looming student loans that risk rationalization leading to violation of the code of conduct by otherwise decent, hardworking lawyers; the noise that starts as the seductive whisper of the siren of success and money, that expensive house in the good neighborhood, that gleaming BMW in the driveway. Those things can become very “noisy” indeed.

Now, I am not suggesting that the fast pace of an exciting practice is undesirable. After all, law is not a contemplative order. But when the noise escalates, so that you can no longer hear that particular melody that inspires you to do the right thing, it must be turned down.

Have the courage to make hard choices. Choose the strong argument and discard the dubious. Resist becoming a captive of technology. Understand that to respond at lightning speed to email and cell phone demands is to respond without study and reflection.

Always keep your word.

Understand that speaking from behind a curtain of bloodless legalisms will not reassure that worried client who has knocked on your door with a trembling hand.

Suppress the urge to demonstrate legal prowess at a financial or emotional cost that your client cannot afford.

Choose the path of intellectual honesty, in the face of sophisticated cynicism. Understand that winning at all costs always costs too much.

Although some believe that hair-splitting, nitpicking, and obfuscation are sometimes necessary to legal strategy, vow that you will not become known as the teller of half-truths. Know that one case in a career is always connected to the cases that came before it and those that come after. Allowing yourself even one impermissible short-cut, one half-truth, one act of abuse of power, will break and scatter that string of precious beads that forms a reputation.

Understand that your community looks to you as a standard-setter. Those biting lawyer jokes notwithstanding, the expectation is that you are a learned person, that you know how our government is supposed to run, and that you will follow and apply the rule of law – with integrity. As you shop at the mall, as you serve on PTA committees, as you stand at town meeting, you are regarded as something more than an average citizen. You will be viewed as a leader. Treasure that perception; and make that perception reality.

Be the lawyer who enthusiastically helps to meet the great need for legal assistance by our citizens who cannot afford us. There are so many desperate people waiting for your help. Be generous. Pro bono service is among the most uplifting ways of paying forward the debt of gratitude you owe so many.

Be the lawyer who understands that there is no shame in asking for help. No one expects you to know everything on Day 1 – or any other day of a long career.

Finally, be the lawyer whose career does not obliterate a personal life. Long hours are often necessary; but long hours should not become the default for a life without balance. Adversarial work often requires aggressive, uncompromising posturing; but enduring inflexibility should not become part of your character. Successful litigation often hinges on consummate cross-examination skills; but such skills should not be included among the “marital arts.”

We all know that law is a “jealous mistress.” I say she is a noisy one as well. Turn down the noise – I guarantee that you will be surprised at what you hear.

As I now send you on your way, I have another pop quiz for you. Here’s the question. Dick, the Butcher, in Shakespeare’s play, “Henry VI, Part 2” says: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Raise your hand if you believe you know the true meaning of this quotation. (On this, of all days, don’t be shy!)

You all get extra credit!

This quote is often used to malign lawyers, and there are competing interpretations as to its meaning. I propose that we accept that of US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. He stated in a 1985 case footnote that this famous line is often misunderstood. He explained that Dick’s statement “was spoken as a rebel, not a friend of liberty” and that “As a careful reading of that text will reveal, Shakespeare insightfully realized that disposing of lawyers is a step in the direction of a totalitarian form of government.”

So, killing all the lawyers would not be a good thing.

Consider the words of Victor H. Metcalf, who in the early 20th century was the US Secretary of Commerce and Labor. Metcalf received his law degree from Yale in 1876, and 30 years later, he addressed the Yale law graduates of 1906. He reminded them – as he does us today – that it is “lawyers who have been the mainstay of [our] government. [I]t was their genius that conceived and brought into existence the Declaration of Independence, and it was their knowledge of English law and institutions that gave to us the Constitution which stands today as the world’s masterpiece of statesmanship.”

Metcalf concluded as follows: “Bear in mind that our system of government is, in the main, the work of the American lawyer and that, with but few exceptions, from the foundation of our government to the present time ‘his hand has guided our ship of state and his brain and genius formulated our liberties.’”

Of course, we now know that those hands and brains can also belong to women.

We also know that at the core of the power and influence of the American lawyer is his or her integrity. Without that, no meaningful accomplishment is possible.

UNH Law Class of 2015 – I have full confidence that you will keep the promises you made to me on your first day of law school. I also know that you will take your place in that unbroken line of lawyers who have created and stood guard over our rule of law – with integrity.

I welcome you, as my colleagues, to our great profession. Congratulations!

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