Bar News - January 18, 2017
Board Perspective: A New Years’ Resolution: Honor the Law
By: Scott Harris
In 1847, Daniel Webster, the dinner guest of the Charleston, South Carolina Bar Association, offered the following toast: The law – it has honored us, may we honor it.
I’ve heard this line before, thought it to be an interesting mot, but never paid it much attention. Having now read Webster’s full remarks, the message Webster had for the Charleston Bar a century and a half ago is just as relevant and important today.
Webster considered some of the ways the law “honors” lawyers. He started by reminding his audience that the “honor” the law bestows on most of us is seldom in the form of great financial wealth. This he contrasted with the state of affairs in England at the time, where, he said, many a family had established their fortunes in the practice of law. (In case you’re now thinking of searching the requirements to be a Barrister or Solicitor, don’t bother, it’s a long complicated process, with the Barrister track coming with its own “Health Warning.”)
Nothing much has changed in terms of the financial rewards of practice. For years, the New Hampshire Bar has surveyed its members and, indeed, while lawyers enjoy an average income that is about 40 percent higher than that of the average wage-earner in the state, most lawyers are not retiring at age 45 to go live in the tropics, spending their prime on the golf course (or diving, sailing or painting for that matter).
Webster was not, however, lamenting the absence of fantastic wealth. The practice of law, he offered, “does what is infinitely better and more important, – it enables us to go do good in our day and generation.” That is still the chief benefit of holding a law license. As lawyers, we have the honor daily of representing clients’ interests and making a meaningful impact on their lives. That impact ranges, for example, from the preparation of estate planning documents, securing the financing necessary to their planned business expansion, or in helping those injured by the wrongful conduct of others to receive some remedy for the losses suffered.
To Webster, honoring the law that provides us the luxury of making a living doing important things meant working to preserve the rule of law. “Liberty and law,” he said, are “intimately connected.” “Civil liberty consists in the establishment of those great and inherent principles of government and human regulation” that have prevailed here and in much of the English-speaking world for centuries.
“The working of our complex system, of checks and restraints on legislative, executive and judicial power, is favorable to liberty and justice. Those checks and restraints are so many safeguards set around individual rights and interests.”
The importance of fostering the rule of law is at least as critical today as it was when Webster addressed the Charleston Bar. As a community, other than the rule of law and our belief in a constitutional form of government, there is not much else that unifies us. We speak different languages; our kids’ schools have different curricula; we have different ethnic backgrounds and spiritual traditions. More and more, we experience our communities from vastly different socioeconomic perspectives. The one thing that should unify us is our respect for the rule of law. Lawyers stand in a unique position to help honor this unifying concept.
There are significant challenges that today confront the rule of law. For one, many of those who appear in our courts do so without the assistance of counsel. Without a lawyer who understands the law and the way it is administered, the individual litigant is less likely to achieve an outcome controlled by the rule of law. Providing pro bono assistance, contributing to the NH Bar Foundation, the NH Campaign for Legal Services, or any of a number of other legal aid organizations helps vindicate and honor the law. With careful thought, there may other ways to connect those who now are proceeding without counsel with legal services they can afford. In any event, lawyers can honor the law by contributing their time, talent and treasure to helping to provide all with access to justice.
Perhaps most important, lawyers are best positioned to advocate for our system of government and its importance in the preservation of our liberty. You’ve heard it before. Large segments of the population don’t know there are three branches of government. Many think Judith Sheindlin (aka “Judge Judy”) is a justice of the United State Supreme Court. And so on.
Attorneys can help remedy this systemic failure by participating in the civic outreach programs of the NH Bar Association and the NH Bar Foundation. We can advocate for educational curricula that teach our kids about the rule of law and what it means for them and our community. Maybe we should all resolve in the New Year to do a little more to honor the law, as it has honored us.