To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:
This letter picks up a thread from an earlier letter by NYCLA President Norman L. Reimer announcing that NYCLA has established a Task Force on Professionalism chaired by our Foundation's president, James B. Kobak Jr. Every profession attempts to enhance the prestige of its avocation and the legal profession is no exception. Yet, during the last quarter of a century, the legal profession has failed to accomplish that goal. In fact, a recent Harris poll painfully tells us that lawyers have suffered the largest drop (19 percentage points) in prestige of any profession in the United States over the last 27 years. We all must ask ourselves "Why?" and "What are we going to do about it?"
The Harris poll results ought to erase the smirk that lingers on the face of any lawyer who still laughs at lawyer jokes. We call ourselves a "noble profession" but obviously the public does not view us as we view ourselves. We must simultaneously reexamine what we are about as a profession and what our core values are. Currently, lawyers in New York are in the midst of reevaluating and reformulating our profession's ethics rules as the New York bar migrates from our 35-year-old Code of Professional Responsibility to a new formulation that, at least in format, will conform to the American Bar Association's Model Rules of professional conduct. Over the next two and a half years, all bar associations across the state will be called upon to provide comments - critical or otherwise - to this wholesale revamping of the standards of professional ethics by which ALL lawyers in the state are governed.
I deliberately emphasized the word "all" in that last sentence because lawyers working in New York County probably comprise the most diverse spectrum of attorneys in the United States. Not only do New York lawyers span the gamut of what we traditionally call "diverse" in terms of race, gender, national origin and religion, but New York County lawyers are also particularly diverse in terms of what they "do." Lawyers here work in private practice, government employment, corporate law departments and numerous not-for-profit organizations dealing with social services, the arts and philanthropy. In addition, many lawyers in our City work exclusively in non-legal roles in business or government; nevertheless, they maintain their active registration and identity as members of the bar. When we consider that element of "diversity" - what we "do" - the question of defining or commenting on "professionalism" becomes even more challenging.
For many decades, sociologists and other scholars have looked for the common threads of "professionalism" that weave through the traditional professions of medicine, law and accountancy. Academics have identified some obvious common characteristics: standardized professional training, government-sanctioned exclusivity, a unique body of professional expertise, self regulation and the presence of "core values" such as social responsibility and personal integrity.
In the legal profession, our "core values" include many components. Our foremost "core value" is the undiluted subordination of our personal interest to the interest of the client and the legal system. All of our ethics rules and aspirations flow directly or indirectly from this principle. For example, all of our ethical precepts about "independence" protect the mandate that a lawyer's advice to clients must be untainted by any conflicting influences from third parties or our own personal views or interests. Lawyers are supposed to strive for greater professional competence and expertise through mandatory continuing education. Lawyers are supposed to render public service, remain trustworthy and promote collegiality and adherence to professional standards. These professional responsibilities are mandatory and are the correlative obligations to the government's granting us the right to practice law.
I doubt that the dismal results of the Harris poll are based on the public's perception of any flaw in our core values or how they are embodied in the Code of Professional Responsibility or Model Rules. There are several causes for the major disconnect between our own self image and how we are seen. As we reformulate our disciplinary rules, we will have an opportunity to reexamine our professional aspirations and goals and seek new ways to communicate those aspirations and goals to a public whose cynicism has become palpable.
I draw comfort from knowing that lawyers in this City are very diverse in what they "do" just as they are diverse in the more traditional formulation of diversity. I am certain that both of these aspects of diversity will give us some fresh answers to the question, "What is professionalism?" It promises to broaden our horizons and expectations of our chosen avocation. It should help us see our "core values" in a new light. With a fresher vision of ourselves, we can better communicate that perception to a cynical public who currently holds us in low esteem.
Meanwhile, each of you can help us better prepare for the task ahead by responding to the professionalism survey on NYCLA's website. Please visit our website at www.nycla.org and scroll to the bottom of the Welcome page. Click on the survey button and tell us "What do you think about professionalism?"
Edwin David Robertson