Despite the poor image of lawyers, I am honored to be a member of the bar. As we commemorate Law Day on May 1, I think it is important to recognize that despite our reputation to the contrary, most lawyers are conscientious and concerned about their client’s welfare. Let me reflect on why I am proud to be a lawyer.
Illinois has a proud history of great lawyers. I am the son of one of them. My father practiced family law, and he was one of the most honorable people I have ever known. I grew up witnessing the kindness and respect he showed his clients on a daily basis. I remember his frequent phone calls at home, from clients whose children weren’t timely returned, or for more trivial reasons. I remember a call he took on Thanksgiving when I was a teenager. I knew the issue had to be important for my dad to get a call on this family holiday. My lurid teenage imagination concocted some life or death domestic struggle, probably a kidnapped child or some scandalous affair. My dad puffed on his pipe and patiently listened to the client’s plight. He told the client that everything would be fine and that he would take care of it as soon as he got to the office on Monday.
When he got off the phone, I tried to pry the salacious details from him. All he told me was that his client’s wife hid his snowmobile. This was not quite the dramatic struggle I envisioned. I told my dad incredulously that it had not yet snowed and none was in the forecast. I complained that the client should not have burdened him with such a silly issue on the holiday. He calmly told me while the issue was objectively not urgent; it was a matter of life or death to his anxious client. As my dad said, “that 10 minute call was merely inconvenient for me, but it has allowed him to relax and hopefully better enjoy his holiday during this awful period.”
This childhood memory (I‘m sure long forgotten by the client), is one of the reasons I am proud to be a lawyer. We help people–frequently during the worst time in their lives–allowing them some peace of mind during a terrifying legal ordeal. While most of us are not therapists by training, good lawyers understand that effective representation requires empathy and caring, just as much as knowledge of the law.
Our public perception is as avaricious sharks, exploiting rather than helping people. While obviously there are certain sociopathic elements in the bar, most lawyers (like my late father) are kind and caring people trying to help clients manage difficult times. If we fight, it is not because of innate irascibility–rather it is because someone is taking advantage of our clients and we want to help them. Most good lawyers are not hired guns. Rather, they are conflict managers seeking solutions.
Wisdom, patience, and responsibility are the traits that exemplify good lawyers. We are responsible, not just to our clients, but the legal system and our society as a whole. We help maintain a civilized society by allowing disputes to be resolved in a controlled forum. We advocate where necessary, but more frequently facilitate dialogue. While some malign us, there is no coincidence that in the United States, the country with the most lawyers, its citizens have the highest level of liberty and freedom.
John W. Davis, in an address at the 75th Anniversary Proceedings of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (March 16, 1946) summed up the profession:
“True, we build no bridges. We raise no towers. We construct no engines. We paint no pictures—unless as amateurs for our own amusement. There is little of all that we do which the eye of man can see. But we smooth out difficulties; we relieve stress; we correct mistakes; we take up other men’s burdens and by our efforts we make possible the peaceful life of men in a peaceful state.”
This is why I am proud to be a lawyer.
(Originally Published Chicago Daily Law Bulletin 2010 Law Day Edition)