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President's Column ~ July/August 2014

Monday, July 21, 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Stephanie McGee
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President's Column
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 belief publicly.

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 service.

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 missions.

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

  

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