From Lithuania with Awe

Visitors-from-Lithuania-1Despite the problems, we have a lot to be proud of in the American legal system.  This was brought home to me recently in a meeting with two law professors from Lithuania, Tomas Versinskas and Simona Ziziene.  Tomas and Simona explained quite matter-of-factly that they are working to re-build their civil code system now that the tenacious yoke of the Soviet system has been removed. They described visiting France and other countries, including ours, to survey differing approaches to imbuing and enforcing professionalism among lawyers.  In short, they are attempting to build a professionalism ethic from scratch.

So they reached out to the American Bar Association and asked to meet with various representatives of our system here in Chicago, including courts, law schools, the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary System, and the Commission on Professionalism to learn more about our system of justice.  Paul Haskins, counsel to the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Professionalism, and I answered questions about lawyers and ethical requirements. The Lithuanian professors’ questions pre-supposed a top-down system of requirements with punishments for transgressions.  I was not surprised, because my research had uncovered a fairly detailed Code of Professional Ethics for Lawyers adopted in 1999 by the Conference of Bar Associations of the Republic of Lithuania.

The Code articulates ideals similar to those we promote at the Commission on Professionalism:  that mutual relations of lawyers are based on confidence, honesty friendliness, tactfulness and politeness, and lawyers shall help each other in their professional activities unless it contradicts the clients’ interests.  It also notes that lawyers are duty-bound to represent clients in lawful ways and not diminish the profession by negative personal conduct.  However, the Code goes on to identify specific behaviors that will subject lawyers to disciplinary proceedings, including “disrespectful conduct in public places, refusal to make required payments to support the activities of the Council of Lithuanian Bar Associations and untidy appearance of lawyers during office hours and failure to wear a gown at court sittings.”

With this background, no wonder Tomas and Simona seemed a little puzzled when they asked me what tools the Commission had to ensure lawyers behaved more professionally and I responded, only partly tongue in cheek:  “the power of persuasion.”  I went on to explain the difference between our ethical rules, the violation of which will subject a lawyer to discipline, and professional aspirations, inspiring lawyers to strive for ideal behavior.  Inspiration cannot be motivated by threat of discipline.  I realized the notion was foreign to them, but they were intrigued by idea that most lawyers strive for excellence and not merely to avoid discipline.

They shared many observations that they had made during their multi-day visit, including the thrilling and enthralling fact that our attorney disciplinary system involves lay people as hearing officers on matters of attorney misconduct.  They shared their observations that our legal system is one of the best in the world and will always be at the top—Tomas’s words—because of the free exchange of information.  He went on to demonstrate with pursed lips and folded arms that the interactions between people in his country and the EU still tend to be closed and suspicious.  In contrast, he was surprised and grateful that so many people in Chicago had readily made time in their schedules to meet with him and Simona to discuss our respective legal systems.

After hearing their reports, I am grateful about our system, too.

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