Surprisingly, Slate managed to highlight something interesting this week in their new history blog. Notes from the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, likely in preparation for a lecture to be given to a congregation of new lawyers. The entirety of the notes can be viewed here.
I wanted to highlight a point by President Lincoln:
–Resolve to be honest at all events; and if, in your own judgment, you can not be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer– Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave–
I have made the same point about honesty before. So have lots of other lawyers:
For my part, ethics and honesty are not a choice. They aren’t a give back for a lawprof who champions their cause, or even transmits their message. They are not negotiable. Ethics and honesty are the sine qua non of being a lawyer, and yet the lesson taught here is that they are situational or only required when students are satisfied that they were given value in return.
Ethics (or moral philosophy) is not the eminent domain of those who are self-professed ethicists. We each make decisions about right and wrong on a daily basis. “Should I cut this guy off to get to work earlier?”, “Is it wrong to lie to my wife that her dinner last night wasn’t slightly off?”, “Will my client be disappointed if I tell her the truth about how weak her case really is?”
Standards. Set them early. Reinforce them always. And it doesn’t take a tiger mom or gorilla dad. If you teach them to respect and understand logic and compassion early, they’ll follow it always. All we did was set-up the framework, and he did the rest.
Same goes for your practice. Big or small, worldwide or local, only as good as the standards you set and reinforce, always. Just remember, we can all tell the nature and quality of your standards. The proof is in the results.
I want a reputation for telling the truth, even if the truth sucks. Or it hurts. Or it’s not what the client wants to hear.
Your reputation is all you have as an attorney. As a young practitioner, you need to guard that reputation fiercely. And if you’re content with getting clients by skirting ethics rules and playing shyster, be my guest. If you’d rather continue to hide information, well, have fun with your insipid spam-twits, your misleading Craigslist ads, annoying online videos, and the “aggressive, experienced representation” you promise on your website — for now.
Just wait until you get that bar complaint — or a malpractice suit — because your promised “experience” was vapid marketing dreck.
It was essential to being a good lawyer 150 years ago. It’s essential to being a good lawyer today. It will be essential to be a good lawyer 150 years in the future.
Truth is powerful. It doesn’t go out of style.