A recent Chicago Tribune op-ed exhorting corporate leaders to speak up got me thinking. It was by Ravin Gandhi, the CEO of GMM Non-stick Coatings, a company that produces non-stick cookware. He talked about writing an op-ed critical of President Donald Trump’s “tepid response to white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va.” He says that it is the responsibility of all leaders to speak their conscience, regardless of their politics and cites a recent survey reporting that 75% of Americans think CEOs should speak out more often publicly on issues of national importance.
Why Lawyers Speak Up
That got me thinking about the responsibility of lawyers. When lawyers speak up on issues of national importance, especially as they pertain to the rule of law and the justice system, they fulfill their professional responsibility. This responsibility is actually written down in the Preamble to the ethical rules that govern all lawyers. The Preamble explains that lawyers have three concurrent sets of responsibilities: to represent their clients, to serve as an officer of the legal system, and to serve as a “public citizen with a special responsibility for the quality of justice.”
This special responsibility is set out with some specificity in the Preamble. As a public citizen and member of a learned profession, lawyers should:
- Seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession;
- Cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients, employ that knowledge in reform of the law and work to strengthen legal education; and
- Further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.
The Principles of Profiteri
These responsibilities underscore what it means to be a member of a profession. Jordan Furlong in his new book Law is a Buyer’s Market: Building a Client-First Law Firm (a must read, by the way) explains that the Latin root of the word “profession” is profiteri which loosely means “to announce a belief.” Initially, only three occupations qualified as professions: clergy, medicine, and law.
If you embarked on one of these careers, you “professed it,” maybe right there in the village square, so that everyone would know you were serving a greater social need and could be approached for help. These professionals made lifetime vows to higher powers: obedience and poverty for clergy, the Hippocratic Oath for doctors, and allegiance to the court and rule of law for lawyers. Lawyers still have “swearing in” ceremonies upon admission to practice, stressing that professional status revolves around the principles of profiteri: service, selflessness, higher purpose, and making life better for others.
Thus, the Preamble lays out the lawyer’s obligation to provide services in the public interest for which compensation may not be available, i.e., pro bono service. In addition, speaking our conscience is part of our professional obligation. The Preamble specifically states that “a lawyer is also guided by personal conscience” and should “strive to improve the law and the legal profession and to exemplify the legal profession’s ideals of public service.”
What Happens When Lawyers Speak Up
Over the last year, several national initiatives show lawyers exemplifying the profession’s ideals of public service. Here are a few inspiring examples.
- President Trump’s travel ban issued by executive order early this year created confusion and concern in members of the public and re-ignited the ideals of public service in many lawyers. You remember the reports: airports across the country were filled with protesters. Hundreds of lawyers made their way to airports and volunteered their services for free. Immigration lawyers have been swamped ever since. And when the Supreme Court upheld portions of the narrowed down travel ban in June, it was reported that lawyers were on hand at several of the major international airports. They reached out to people potentially affected by the ban with signs in various languages saying “Do you need an attorney?” and “free legal services.”
- Veterans Legal Checkup is a mobile application designed by lawyers to help people identify if a situation in their lives has a legal remedy and if so, help them find solutions. A collaboration between lawyers at the American Bar Association, ARAG Legal Insurance and CuroLegal, the Veterans Legal Checkup is a free service developed in response to a Legal Services Corporation report. That report found that veterans only seek professional legal help for 21% of problems. The top reasons for not seeking legal help are as follows: didn’t know where to look (29%), decided to deal with problem on own (25%), and wasn’t sure if legal (18%).
- In response to reports of violence that have escalated over the recent past, lawyers have banded together from CuroLegal and the ABA Center for Innovation, along with Cisco Systems, to educate and help victims and witnesses of hate crimes. HateCrimeHelp.com is a free application to help users understand what hate crimes are (including the statutory scheme in their state), as well as options for responding to hate crimes.
- In response to the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, the same incident that spawned Ravin Gandhi’s op-ed I referred to at the beginning of this post, the Decalogue Society convened a press conference at the Chicago Loop Synagogue to condemn acts of racism and anti-Semitism. Several other bar associations, including the Illinois State Bar Association, joined at the event. As Illinois State Bar Association President Russ Hartigan wrote in this month’s Illinois Bar Journal, “recent events from Poland to Turkey to Charlottesville underscore the urgent need to stand up for the rule of law around the world.”
Lawyers are in positions of leadership across local, state and national organizations and community groups. Members of the public look to lawyers for their perspectives on events involving our government and rule of law. We can, and should, educate about the importance of the rule of law and principles of democracy. That’s not being political, but professional.