Ethics and Professionalism – Back to the Future
“What Jim have you learned from going through the experiences in your life that caused you to lose everything, including your law license, and have to start over completely? No lawyer or anyone in the legal profession wants to go through what you did, but they do want to know what you have learned from your unique experiences, and more specifically, what if you were starting over, would you do differently?”
These questions were put to me recently by a former North Carolina Superior Court Judge who had served as such for over 23 (twenty three) years. I had once tried a triple murder case, as a defense lawyer, in which he presided. He knows the law well as his father was a Superior Court judge in this state, and his son is about to enter law school himself.
So these questions were really not academic at all but rather an attempt to draw out from me anything he could to get at the heart of the matter, much as a trial court judge would do. And I think he succeeded.
As a result, I propose a new Continuing Legal Education program based not just on the retelling of my own experiences as a lawyer, both good and bad, but rather an intensive search for what I have learned in the generation since I practiced law, and what I would do differently now, if I could go “Back to the Future”, be 25 (twenty five) years old again and start all over. Would my personal and professional life have turned out differently? Would I still be practicing law? Would I be happy?
Clearly, any program that seeks to teach Ethics and Professionalism, at a minimum, has to include a discussion of integrity, honesty, passion, ethical dealings with other lawyers and the court, and regular and straightforward communication with clients. This program certainly will include such discussions, according to the Rules of Professional Conduct, and a general conversation about what I did wrong, what led to those mistakes and how lawyers can keep themselves from similar situations.
But if I were starting over, knowing what I know now, what would I do, and how would I seek to perform as a lawyer?
The following thoughts are what I told to the Judge recently, and what I really believe:
- Treat each legal matter as though it is the most important one in the world, regardless of the station of the client and the fee being paid – it is to the client.
- Do not try to be all things to all people – learn to say no. Take only those cases that can be handled well and within my ability to represent the client well.
- Preparation – leave no stone unturned. Know more about my case or matter than anyone else.
- More honesty – unfortunately some people believe there are degrees of this. Telling the truth to my client, when the news is bad, or when I have not done what I said I would do or could do is absolutely critical. The truth is the most important asset I and/or my client have.
- Do not leave everything to the last minute – be better prepared along the way – it is good to be a great closer, but the problem is there is no room for error.
- Learn to be happier. Relax. Live in the moment more. Take care of my personal life.
- Do not chase money. It will come best if I am doing the best I can for a client, doing what I said I would do, doing it on time, and letting the client regularly know what I am doing.
- Follow through – this may seem redundant to some of the above, but it cannot be mentioned too often. It means keeping my promises.
- Practice law more simply. Learn what I know how to do and do that. And only that.
- Simplify my life. Do not live above my means. This can lead to disastrous results for me, both personally and professionally.
- As hard as I try, I can always try harder, and make each day count.
- Talk to friends or a professional when not feeling well about myself. I resisted this until it was too late.
- Working on my self-confidence – this was always a problem for me.
- Think, particularly when I am young, how I want to be remembered.
It is not easy being in the legal profession. It is consistently high stress. There are lots of disappointed people every day. If I was starting over, though, and I followed the points I have outlined above, I believe I would be fine. These points are simple. No one can disagree with them. That does not mean they are easy to follow. But as well as anyone, I know the consequences of not following them all the time. Some of the time will not work.
The goal of this program is to help those in the legal profession stay on the right track and help to insure they fully recognize the honor of being where they are, and how, if they follow these suggestions, they can stay there.