In a democratic society, no institution can long survive without the faith and confidence of the people. If the profession of law is to endure, it must have the support and approval of the citizens of this country and this state.
Every generation of lawyers must answer this challenge. I offer to you the following observation:
At the present, the lawyer does not hold as high a position with the people as he (she) held 75 or indeed 50 years ago.
Does that sound like a remark made at a recent bar association meeting? Far from being contemporary, these words were uttered by Louis Brandeis at the Harvard Ethical Society meeting in 1905.
Admittedly, the Bar at that time did not have to deal with the O.J.Simpson trial being broadcast live every day into the homes of America. But each generation has its own unique problems.
We know and love our profession because of its institutional values -- its integrity, honesty, impartiality, and fairness, to mention a few. Of course we enjoy other aspects of the practice, such as the intellectual challenge, the personal satisfaction of working with clients, the respect and admiration for our position, the financial rewards, the independence, and the list goes on.
Aside from such individual rewards, the greater good to society as a whole comes from the high ethical standards with which law is practiced.
Why should society trust us?
When Alexis De Tocqueville was traveling in America in the early 1830's he made a trenchant observation about our profession. He wrote that the profession of law is the only aristocracy which can be absorbed without violence by the natural elements of democracy and which can be advantageously and permanently combined with them. With his knowledge of the French revolution, he understood not only violence, but also aristocracy. His reference to the legal profession as an aristocracy was not lightly made.
More recently, Dr. James D. Laney, the former president of Emory University, described the legal profession as a "moral aristocracy." While not a lawyer, Dr. Laney recognized the commitment of the profession to the larger good of society as a whole and not just to the individual client or lawyer.
What is the justification for any aristocracy? How does any aristocracy pass the test of legitimacy? Intelligence and education are not enough; money and social standing are not enough; and even competency and hard work are not enough. The only justification for an aristocracy is virtue. If our profession is to enjoy a position in our society that is truly elite, it must be because of our virtue, our character, our moral code.
The essence of being a lawyer is our code of conduct. It is our character that separates us. Technical knowledge of the law can be acquired by anyone with sufficient intelligence. The application of that law to our citizens must be administered by officers of the court who are always more concerned with professional values than with prevailing for the individual client to the material benefit of the individual lawyer.
Most lawyers engage in our profession because they are devoted to it. We are well aware that we serve the public. We are cognizant of the fact that our knowledge and superior position give us an opportunity to exploit a client. It is a rare exception when a lawyer violates his trust and over charges or otherwise takes advantage of a client.
If we are to win the public trust, we as a profession must be recognized because of our values, virtues, and character. To reach this takes constant striving by all of us. In reality, we cannot expect that there will ever be a day of complete victory. We will never be able to sit back and rest upon our laurels. Like Sisyphus, each generation of lawyers must push boulders up the hill, day in and day out.
This is our challenge. We must prevail. There is no alternative.