By Jennifer L. Ilkka
If you're an attorney, chances are you, like me, have been compared to a used car salesmen. When they want to get a good rise out of me, my non-attorney friends and family love to cite the "statistic" that a greater majority rate the former less trustworthy than the latter.
I can take a joke as well as the next guy, but as the purchaser of a few used cars in my life, the comparison doesn't compute.
Nonetheless, the fact that my chosen profession is so ill regarded is bothersome. As an attorney who believes in the law and generally loves the practice, it is hard not to be offended by the stereotype of attorneys as morally bankrupt liars willing to say anything to win their case and make a buck.
In my view, the practice of law is among the noblest of professions.
As a new associate, I was beguiled by the unfair stigma. Six years of practice, however, has afforded me some perspective. Sadly, I have concluded that for too many lawyers, the stereotype is not altogether inaccurate.
From a lack of civility to outright deception, the professional transgressions I have witnessed by fellow attorneys are wide and varied. My bet is they constitute the mere tip of the iceberg.
My first exposure to such antics came in the context of a discovery dispute. Taught early to be as generous and accommodating in discovery, and to avoid discovery disputes like the plague, I quickly learned why: A legitimate objection or innocent omission is easily manipulated by an unscrupulous opponent into a baseless accusation that you are hiding something.
The frequency and ease with which I've seen lawyers resort to such tactics is unsettling. It reinforces and perpetuates the negative stereotypes that unfairly tarnish the reputation of the legal community as a whole.
Initially, this was a tough pill to swallow. But through the years, I have not only grown accustomed to the low blows of legal adversaries, I now expect them. It's sad.
My most recent brush with underhanded opposition was at trial. Confronted with repeated objections by the other side that exhibits I was offering were not previously or timely disclosed, I was forced to defend against the false suggestion that I was conducting a trial by ambush.
Opposing counsel's efforts to malign my character were especially galling given they were part of an intentional effort by him to mislead the court.
Some might view my opponent's strategy as an acceptable form of the vigorous advocacy demanded by the profession and expected by clients. I disagree. Though I fight tooth and nail for my clients, I do so within the bounds of the law and the dictates of my professional and moral compass. My integrity is not negotiable.
The Rules of Professional Responsibility impose upon lawyers a "special responsibility for the quality of justice."
This obligates us to "zealously protect and pursue a client's legitimate interest" in a manner that "demonstrate[s] respect for the legal system and for those who serve it." The professional oath we took demands adherence to these principles and the public's confidence in our legal system depends on it. But all too often, these principles are sacrificed to win.
One model to which members of the bar should aspire is Robert Bolt's depiction of Sir Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons." The play chronicles More's refusal as chancellor of England to legally condone King Henry the VIII's divorce from Catherine of Aragon to facilitate his new marriage to Anne Boleyn. More's "treason" ultimately resulted in his execution.
In the view of my partner-mentor, Bolt's play elucidates the importance of law in society and gives purpose and meaning to those that practice it. A copy of the play sits on perpetual display, open to his favorite passage, behind a glass cabinet in his office.
My favorite scene comes near the end, where More tries to explain to his daughter his unwillingness to disregard the rule of law to accommodate the whim of his king, even to save himself:
"When a man takes an oath, Meg, he's holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then he needn't hope to find himself again."
More's words remind me of the solemnity of the oath I took when I became an attorney. My faith in the law and commitment to this oath help me to take the high road again and again, even when it isn't the easiest or most intuitive path.
I've found a strategy of integrity and credibility pays dividends in the long run. As my grandma used to say: The cream always rises to the top.
And victory is more gratifying when it is something you can be proud of.
I'll concede my fondness for "A Man for All Seasons" likely lies in Bolt's portrayal of lawyer as hero — a stark and welcome contrast to the negative stereotypes so prevalent today. So to the critics and skeptics of the legal profession, read Bolt's play, and give us lawyers a break. After all, it's election season. Go pick on the politicians.