President's Column ~ July/August 2014
Monday, July 21, 2014
Posted by: Stephanie McGee
M. Gray Styers, Jr.
Tenth J.D. Bar President and Wake County Bar Association
WHAT IS "PROFESSIONALISM”?
We say we work in the "legal profession.” We follow the "Rules of ‘Professional’
Conduct.” We aspire to dress and act
like "professionals.” The Wake County
Bar Association promotes "professionalism” among its members and has a
"Professionalism” Committee. Despite our
frequent use of the term "professional” (or related words), how often do we
think about what the word actually means or where it came from?
Derived from the Latin root professus, "to profess” is commonly
defined as "to avow, or speak, publicly; to make an open declaration.” A "profession of faith” is to declare one’s
Through the centuries, the classic, traditional professions included
clergy (to profess God), doctors (to profess health), military officers (to
profess peace or aggression), lawyers (to profess justice), and teachers (to
profess knowledge). In this last
category, subspecialties include "professors” of chemistry (who profess
chemistry), "professors” of English (who profess English) and "professors” of
philosophy (who profess philosophy), etc.
This list is not intended to exclude other occupations whose members act
"professional,” but these were the classic professions.
Historically, all of these "professions” shared common
characteristics. For instance, their
members wore unique clothing when functioning in their official capacity: military uniforms, clerical robes, academic
regalia, etc. Although this tradition
has not been maintained by attorneys in the United States (except among our
judges, who wear the traditional black robes), a visit to higher level trial
courts and appellate courts in the United Kingdom or former British
Commonwealth countries will reveal the continuing legacy of "court dress” by
the members of those bars.
Most professions also require specialized educational training and a
license, ordination, or government commission in order to hold oneself out as a
member of that profession. Our law
schools and the Board of Law Examiners fulfill that role.
Traditionally, professions were also self-regulated pursuant to
established standards of conduct. This
characteristic gives rise to "professional licensing boards” that serve as good
clients for many of our colleagues in the Wake County Bar. For our own profession, the North Carolina
State Bar serves us well in that regard.
More important than dress codes, education and licensure requirements,
or even self-regulation are, in my opinion, the motivations of
"professionals.” Historically, in the
"classic” professions, a professional’s calling was to provide service to
others (including to the State or to the Church) rather than to accumulate
wealth for themselves. Merchants,
craftsman, manufacturers and businessman, can and do, lead virtuous lives,
contribute to their communities and are upstanding citizens (and if working in
a service industry, provide valuable services to their customer), but their
income and occupational success is largely a function of the financial
performance of their enterprise. In
contrast (at least traditionally), members of the "professions” were generally
compensated according to a set formula or rate for their objective advice and
Is this still true today? An
ongoing discussion among lawyers and law school professors over the past 50
years is whether the practice of law is still a classic "profession” or whether
it has become more like a business or trade.
It is a goal – and, I believe, a primary goal – of the Wake County Bar
Association to maintain, support and promote the professional ideals of the
practice of law. Much of the work of our
committees and many of our projects and initiatives – mentoring, public
service, continuing education and others – have this goal at the core of those
Individually, as we wrestle with the economic realities and pressures
of law practice, it is easy to forget what it means to be a
"professional.” It is a difficult time
economically for attorneys, and many of our sisters and brethren in our
profession are struggling to keep the lights on, pay their staff and support
their families. I don’t minimize those
challenges (In fact, I live them every day.).
But, it is important, at least once in a while, to ask ourselves, "What
is it that we ‘profess’ as attorneys?” and to realize that our actions often
"profess” louder than our words.
Is it profits per partner? Or is
it public service and pro bono? In our
public declarations, do we "profess” the rule of law, an independent judiciary
and adequate judicial resources to efficiently and fairly administer
justice? In our actions, do we "profess”
high standards of ethical behavior, objective counsel to our clients, civility
to our opponents and unwavering honesty to all?
Are we called to the law by our desire to serve and assist others or to
accumulate wealth for ourselves? How we
answer these questions will determine whether we will continue to be a
"profession,” in the very best sense of the word. WBF