O'Connor: Lawyers 'unhappy lot'

Star-Tribune correspondent
March 17, 2004

LARAMIE -- Today's lawyers are "an unhappy lot" and many of them wish they had gone into some other line of work, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told an overflow audience in a University of Wyoming concert hall Tuesday.

Speaking as the inaugural lecturer in a College of Law series on ethics and professionalism, O'Connor said ethical standards have declined since she went to law school in an era when people "trusted and respected" lawyers.

"Job dissatisfaction among lawyers is widespread, profound and growing worse," she said. Studies have shown that lawyers are three times as likely as those in other professions to suffer depression, and that drug dependency, divorce and suicide are also significantly more common among them, she told the audience.

A California study showed lawyers to be "profoundly pessimistic about the future of the legal profession" and found that only half said they would enter the profession if they had it to do over again, she said. Similarly, at the 30th anniversary of her Stanford Law School class, "the vast majority" said in response to a question that they would not do it over again if they had the choice to make.

In films, she said, lawyers are depicted as "bad people and bad professionals, unethical, disloyal or incompetent, and not too many Americans even remember that our society once actually trusted and respected lawyers."

"I think the decline of professionalism is partly responsible for this state of things," O'Connor said.

 "Lawyers have to do more than know the law and the arts of practicing it," the justice said. "A great lawyer always remembers the moral and social aspects of an attorney's power and position."

 "It has been said that a nation's laws are an expression of its highest ideals," said O'Connor, "while the conduct of some lawyers in the United States has sometimes been an expression of its lowest."

 "A win-at-all costs mentality sometimes prevails," she said. "Many attorneys believe that zealously representing their client means pushing all the rules of ethics and decency to the limit.

 "In contemporary practice, we often speak of our dealings with other lawyers as war, and act accordingly. But we ought not to look at litigation as war, or arguments as battles, or a trial as a siege."

 "Civility is not a virtue that the majority of lawyers today choose to advertise," O'Connor said, deploring "the brutality of some in the legal profession today."

 Carl M. Williams, a UW College of Law Graduate whose $1 million gift to the university made the lecture series and other ethics programs possible, deplored some advertising tactics in the profession. "I am put off by lawyers who come on the air and then cross over the line to deception" in their advertising, Williams.

 O'Connor said she was sorry that because of the Supreme Court's schedule her appearance coincided with spring break, so that many law school students were absent. Despite spring break, however, there was a standing room only crowd in the Fine Arts Center Concert Hall, which seats nearly 700.

 At a book signing by the justice beforehand, the line stretched clear across the spacious lobby of the center and snaked down a hallway to the east entrance of the building. A rough count showed somewhere between 150 to 200 people waiting. The justice's books are "The Majesty of the Law" and "Lazy B," her account of growing up on an Arizona ranch.

 O'Connor, a Republican,  served in the Arizona legislature and as an elected judge, was appointed to the state's Court of Appeals by Democratic Gov. Bruce Babbitt and was nominated to succeed retiring Justice Potter Stewart on the Supreme Court in 1981 by Republican President Ronald Reagan. She was the 102nd justice and the first woman to take a seat on the court.

 Her appointment was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 99-0, with Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana absent. In an on-stage conversation with former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, one of the members of the Judiciary Committee which also confirmed her unanimously, she said she thought Reagan, a horseman himself, "was intrigued by the cowgirl part of my background." Asked why the Senate action was unanimous, she said, "I think they were all a little hesitant about voting 'no'" because she was a woman.