December 2010 President's Column
Deeds Befitting the Holiday Season
By A. Todd Brown
The holiday season is upon us. Parties, good cheer, and shopping lie ahead for many of us. The holidays are a special time of year. A time to share special moments with family and friends. A time to cherish loved ones. A time to reflect upon the year soon to end. A time to anticipate the year about to begin.
But what if this holiday season, in homage to those for whom the holidays will not be shiny and bright, we performed a few good deeds? Deeds consistent not only with the holiday spirit but also with the MCB's mission to serve the public and our members in improving and preserving the administration of justice. What if we assisted a deserving family in the Mecklenburg community by agreeing to perform legal services pro bono in the new year? If we found a way to offer a hand-up, not a hand-out, to someone searching unsuccessfully for work in this tough economy? If we were able to help a citizen striving, but unable, to feed his or her family? If we bought one gift, educational or whimsical, for a child who will find no present underneath the tree? And within our MCB family, what if we publicly praised a colleague worthy of recognition for long-standing community service? If we surprised an adversary with an unexpected (perhaps even undeserved) act of professionalism and civility?
As lawyers, we hold the privilege of being members of the greatest profession in the world. But that privilege obliges us to give much back to the communities and profession we serve. A fellow bar president's column nailed the point that whenever lawyers see an opportunity to make a difference, we must seize it because of our training and professional responsibility to serve society. He quoted baseball great Roberto Clemente, who died tragically on New Year's eve in 1972 while en route to deliver humanitarian aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua: "Anytime you have a chance to make a difference in this world and you don't, then you are wasting your time on Earth."
A 2008 report by the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission observed: "When they need assistance with a civil legal matter, over 80 percent of low-income people and people of modest means cannot afford to pay attorneys and are unable to secure representation from publicly funded attorneys or pro bono volunteers." The report noted that Gene Nichol, former Dean of the University of North Carolina School of Law, once aptly remarked: [W]e leave the poor unrepresented on the most crushing problems of life -- divorce, child custody, domestic violence, housing, benefits. We think it natural that a commercial dispute between battling corporations takes six months to try, while the fate of a battered child is determined in only a few minutes. What passes for civil justice among the have-nots is breathtaking." It was fitting, therefore, that on January 28, 2010, the State Bar adopted Rule 6.1, Voluntary Pro Bono Publico Service, which provides: "Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year. & In addition, a lawyer should voluntarily contribute financial support to organizations that provide legal services to persons of limited means."
The rendering of legal services to those least able to access or afford them is a hallmark of the legal profession, because protecting the basic rights of all citizens is essential to preserving our democratic system. It is also an effective vehicle for mending the unflattering image of the legal profession held by many in society. So, this holiday season let's discharge our professional obligation by pledging to provide a member of the public legal services pro bono. For those of us able to do so, lets contribute some amount to a charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental, or educational organization of our choosing. At roughly 4300 MCB members strong, our good deeds tally could be substantial.
And, let's honor our MCB family as we go about the business of being "good-deed doers." As MCB President, I continue to hear judges and lawyers alike lament the inexcusable lack of professionalism and/or civility among lawyers. In the spirit not only of the holidays but also our Code of Professional Responsibility, let's pledge to model exemplary conduct in respect of professionalism and civility. Indeed, let's ensure that our professional behavior exceeds the aspirational nature of the Preamble to the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct, where section 13 teaches:
Although a matter is hotly contested by the parties, a lawyer should treat opposing counsel with courtesy and respect. The legal dispute of the client must never become the lawyers personal dispute with opposing counsel. A lawyer, moreover, should provide zealous but honorable representation without resorting to unfair or offensive tactics. The legal system provides a civilized mechanism for resolving disputes, but only if the lawyers themselves behave with dignity. A lawyer's word to another lawyer should be the lawyer's bond. As professional colleagues, lawyers should encourage and counsel new lawyers by providing advice and mentoring; foster civility among members of the bar by acceding to reasonable requests that do not prejudice the interests of the client; and counsel and assist peers who fail to fulfill their professional duties because of substance abuse, depression, or other personal difficulties.
This holiday season and beyond, let's engage in that which is personally and professionally gratifying. That which is laudable. Lend a helping hand to someone less privileged. Opt for civility over hard-ball tactics. Rise above pettiness. Be honorable. Make a difference -- not by mere words but by good deeds worthy of emulation. Do so and you'll be surprised, perhaps even astounded, at just how inspiring and uplifting your good deeds can be to others. And, in many respects, that really is the reason for the season. I wish each of you a safe and joyous holiday season.