I do not often write about lawyers being lawyers. I write about them mostly as leaders, managers, colleagues and humans. However, occasionally I like to write about what it means to be a lawyer and what my hopes are for a profession that I respect very much, and indeed, a profession that I love.
It is of course a profession that includes lawyers who work in a huge diversity of roles and with all manner of responsibilities. Lawyers who work in and for Governments; who work in and for charities and who work in and for the biggest companies in the world; and there are lawyers who work for rural communities tucked away down faraway country roads. It includes lawyers who campaign fearlessly in the media, and lawyers who just want a quiet life relying on their carefully crafted precedents. It also includes those who defend and those who prosecute.
Is it possible therefore, for there to be a thread that pulls such disparate roles and people together?
I think so.
The reason we are called lawyers is because in addition to the paper qualifications and the tasks we perform, we have signed up to a set of behavioural requirements that codify (partially) what it means to be a lawyer on an ongoing and everyday basis.
For many of the roles and tasks that we perform (perhaps even the majority) we do not have to call ourselves lawyer. We could call ourselves contract managers, or conveyancers, or advisors, or nothing at all. It would not stop us doing our job or being well paid for the results we achieve. There is no need, for the most part, to add the word “lawyer” to what we do.
If we choose to call ourselves lawyers, therefore, it cannot be just for the kudos of a professional title. It is because we have given our informed and solemn consent to uphold standards that should never be compromised or diminished by a contract of employment or a client’s ignorant or malign behest.
We have chosen to adhere to these standards knowing it will occasionally mean we must act against the wishes of those who employ us, and that it will always mean we hold a line above expediency, and way above illegality. It places us at some risk that in doing the right thing we might even lose work or our jobs. It is an honourable and noble tradition. Neither is it fanciful to note that in some parts of the world lawyers acting in accordance with such standards might risk losing their liberty or even their lives.
If a fellow lawyer in another land might die for their adherence to these standards, surely we do not wear the title in our more benign surroundings as a decorative medal of convenience? It means something, right?
I think it is probably the case that for many stretched and overly busy lawyers such thoughts are so hypothetical and so remote as to barely flicker in the darkest recess of their planetary sized brains. However, in my humble view, that is a moment when we are at risk of crossing a line.
I think we should routinely drill conduct dilemmas. Like fire drills or dawn raid rehearsals, we should role play in the danger zones and we should do so celebrating how it may one day save our reputations, our businesses, and the needs of the communities in which we live and serve.
2021 does not have more, or greater, existential threats than any previous year; it is just that in 2021 we cannot easily deny their existence. We know, better than ever, that Governments can lie, that Boards can cheat, and that Regulators can miss non-compliance. We know pressure can be brought upon us that bends a counsel-to-perfection into an uncomfortable ethical shape. We know we can all rush to the scene of a priority and trample over good governance in the stampede to arrive there first.
Lawyers, of course, are not the sole defenders of right against wrong; anyone can stand up and speak truth to power, and everyone can make moral and ethical choices. However, lawyers have accepted that this is part of their very identity and that it is part of their purpose to do so. We have promised.
If we do not like the gig, fine, but then ditch the title. If we accept the title, however, then we must learn to love what it means. Above all we should be proud of the fact that everyday lawyers here and around the world are doing unheralded, selfless and heroic things believing in the promises they have made; we honour their work and ours, by knowing that these are the same promises we have all made.