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Professionalism begins in law school, continues through mentoring

by Craig D. Feiser
Jacksonville Financial News & Daily Record
March 2004

I can vividly recall sitting in my professional responsibility class in law school several years ago where the professor explained that ethics was still relatively new as an ABA-required course at law schools. Over the course of the next twelve weeks, she tried to emphasize not only the importance of learning the formal rules regulating professional conduct of attorneys, but also the importance of professionalism in everything attorneys do on a daily basis. Still, many students felt that traits of “professionalism” are simply common sense, while many of the explicit rules regulating the bar are too restrictive and represent an elitist attitude on the part of fellow attorneys to delve into the personal business of their colleagues. Some of the more cynical minds of my fellow students viewed professional responsibility, and the subsequently required Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, as nothing more than relatively new ways for bar review companies and bar associations to unnecessarily take more money from the pockets of unsuspecting law students.
My own personal experiences as a professor of ethics and professional responsibility courses at both the undergraduate and law school levels have taught me that many students are still indifferent, and often times hostile, to what they view as being “spoon fed” the moral values that pertain to how they should conduct their private business. Much of this hostility is directed at the Florida Bar itself, which many view as an entity seeking to maximize its profits while often times preventing the “little guy” from running a successful law practice.
As examples, some students feel members of the public should only become clients when they, as the legal professionals, say so, and then attorneys should be permitted to essentially control most aspects of the legal relationship. Many are skeptical of the Bar’s desire to control how they reach agreement on the amount of fees with their clients. Others are resentful of Bar rules placing a duty upon them to reveal confidential information obtained from their clients, or preventing their firms from representing clients due to the previous representation of an adverse party by one of a firm’s attorneys. Still others view the Bar’s efforts to review and limit lawyer advertising as entirely too restrictive, particularly in these trying and ultra-competitive times.
In short, a large number of students view their future practice of law as a business, plain and simple, and they do not want the Bar or any other regulatory association over-regulating their business as long as no one is being misled and no laws are being broken. Perhaps more troubling, some either miss or undervalue the over-arching concept of “professionalism” that is the goal of the Bar ethics rules. They understand the need to protect the public from some of the most egregious conduct of a select few “bad apples,” but they feel that wide latitude should be given to businessmen and women in order to win cases for their clients and, in essence, “put food on the table.”
Such continuing attitudes on the part of many soon-to-be public servants are disturbing. But they can be steadily changed by all Bar members acting as mentors to those entering the legal profession. New attorneys need to understand the importance of not just the specific rules regulating their conduct, but also the need to hold themselves to higher standards of professionalism. Students seem to understand many of the reasons behind the declining public perception of attorneys, but they need to understand that changing that perception begins with them as future stewards of the profession. The practice of law should be held out as not merely a business with economic benefits, but as a higher calling with standards that are reflected in the rules implemented and enforced by The Florida Bar and taught in law school.
In other words, professional responsibility is every bit as important and vital to the practice of law as the skills necessary to litigate, draft wills, prosecute criminals, or write business contracts.
While some second-year law students still do not grasp the importance and overwhelming need for such a course, practicing attorneys serving as mentors can hopefully drive home the point that their dollars were not wasted in law school. Instead, professionalism is an aspirational goal that can only be achieved by all attorneys working under the same system.
Craig D. Feiser is Law Clerk to the Honorable John H. Moore II, United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida, and an adjunct professor of law.
If you would like to write an article about an ethical or professionalism experience that others in the Bar may learn from, please contact Caroline Emery, Chair of the Professionalism Column, atCaroline_Emery@flmd. uscourts.gov.