President's Message

Posted by: Robert Harrington on Sep 1, 2012

Professionalism and A Legacy Of Service                                                                                                                                                                                                             By Robert E. Harrington

In recent years, the Bar has placed increasing emphasis on "professionalism" as a required subject matter for Continuing Legal Education.  Many jurisdictions, including North Carolina now require periodic coursework in the area of professionalism or professional responsibility.  Our State Bar rules define "professionalism" to include not only dedication to clients, but also service to community, especially to the disadvantaged and those unable to pay for legal services, and civility.

History, however, teaches that "professionalism," broadly defined to include public service and civic leadership, is nothing new to our profession.  Included among the military generals and business leaders who have served our nation as president are more than our proportionate share of lawyers.  Fully 26 of our 43 presidents (lawyer Grover Cleveland was our 22nd and 24th president) have been lawyers by training, bringing their skills as advocates, counselors, and orators to the office.  The first of these lawyer-presidents was John Adams, the ardent patriot, who, nonetheless, courageously - and successfully - defended British soldiers charged with murder in the Boston Massacre.  Nearly a century later, the most prominent of our lawyer-presidents used the skills and sensibilities of his chosen profession to establish for a still young nation "that government of the people, by the people, for the people [would] not perish from the earth."

In the succeeding century and a half, members of our profession continued to lead as we navigated the waters of our democracy.  Their stories are many: A young Thurgood Marshall being spirited away in the back of a car after defending a poor criminal defendant in Tennessee.  Clarence Darrow arguing for the defense in the Scopes trial.  Marion Wright Edelman dedicating her life to the improvement of conditions for children and declaring, simply, "Service is the rent we pay for being." Harper Lee's Atticus Finch teaching Scout the importance of standing alone to protect his client.  Closer to home our Bar members have served as governors, senators, mayors, and signers of the Declaration of Independence - and as prominent leaders of our state's institutions of higher education.

We all share this legacy of service and the principals that undergird it.  These principals are enshrined in the preamble to our North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct.  The preamble opens with the declaration that a lawyer is not only a representative of clients and an officer of the legal system, but also "a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice."  The preamble further advises that a lawyer must conform to the requirements of the law, not only in her professional service to client, but also "in the lawyer's business and personal affairs."  We are charged with seeking to improve the law and the quality of services rendered by our legal profession.  The preamble counsels us, like our forebears, "to render public interest legal service and provide civic leadership."  We are encouraged to render provide services for the poor and advised that "[p]ersonal involvement in the problems of the disadvantaged can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a lawyer."  "Every lawyer, regardless of professional prominence of profession workload, should find time to participate in, or otherwise support, the provision of legal services to the disadvantaged."

Much of this we do collectively.  The Bar is at its best when we provide opportunities and tools for our members to render professional services to the disadvantaged and when we support each other in serving as leaders in matters large and small, popular and, sometimes, less than popular.  We are encouraged to treat each other, even in the heat of opposition, "with courtesy and respect."  Our rules protect and preserve not only the interests of our clients, but the spirit of civility, collegiality, dignity, and respect.

For the fortunate among us, the law has provided a means for financial security and professional success.  For most, if not all, of us, though, there is something more than money and professional standing that led us to law school and that sustains us through the challenges of daily law practice.  That "something else" is the opportunity to be a part of a community of professionals dedicated to maintaining the rule of law and concerned with the improvement of our society.  We are all fortunate to be in that number.