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Young Lawyers and Professionalism: Another View

One of the many surprises in store for young lawyers, besides the deluge of phone calls from relatives asking for free legal advice, is the concern voiced from "older" attorneys over the decline in professionalism and civility among members of the bar. Of course, hand in hand with this concern is the implicit accusation that newer attorneys have caused this "decline." In response, newer attorneys suggest that it is the experienced practitioners who are to blame. Associates point to examples of senior partners who, either outrightly or in the guise of an innocuous-sounding "assignment," ask them to engage in unprofessional tactics without encouraging them to discuss or consider the ethical ramifications of their actions.

The Real Issue

Although both arguments have valid points, I believe that the root of the problem, as well as the hope for a solution, lies within our law schools. An associate who has a clear idea of what it means to be a professional when she graduates from law school will be more likely to consider the ethical aspect of her actions. On the other hand, an associate who first grapples with a professional or ethical dilemma when she is receiving an assignment from a senior partner is likely to follow blindly where that partner leads. For new attorneys hanging out their own shingle, a lack of good mentors and role models in the profession makes the ethical lessons learned in law school even more important.

Far from preparing students for ethical conflicts, law schools have a tendency to evoke unprofessional behavior. This happens for a number of reasons. First, certain conduct which is tolerated, even encouraged, in the classroom has no place in the legal profession. Do you remember any of the following from law school?

  • A student who insists on expressing his opinion about tangential topics and continually contributes his own irrelevant hypotheticals.
  • A student who interrupts other students and professors in an effort to "one-up" her classmates.
  • A professor who uses a harsh and disrespectful "in your face" approach to discussions.

This conduct, often encouraged in the name of spirited debate, teaches students that boorish behavior, while unpleasant, is necessary to succeed in law school. It suggests that this conduct is appropriate and even expected in the legal practice. This attitude is reflected by attorneys who exhibit the same types of behavior during motions, depositions, etc.

Second, law school is structured to encourage competition, not cooperation. For the most part, classes are graded on a strict curve, meaning that a student's grade can only improve at the expense of a fellow student. Thus students develop a "win at all costs" attitude which engenders a fear of disclosing information, fans petty feuds, and even breeds dishonesty. Unfortunately, it seems this "win at all costs" attitude survives law school.

Finally, with few exceptions, law schools fail to teach the value of compromise and cooperation. Classes emphasize win-lose cases to illustrate points of law. Rarely will a professor delve into the more difficult problem of how to turn seemingly intractable differences into win-win situations. Because students are taught to analyze problems in this one-dimensional fashion, as attorneys, it is easy to focus on "winning," rather than obtaining the best result for the client. We have all heard about parties, fed up with their attorneys' bickering (and fees), who call each other and settle a case themselves.

Producing Professionals

The legal profession is besieged with complaints about attorneys who are rude, disrespectful and unprofessional. Attorneys may debate ad infinitum whether or not this lack of civility and professionalism arises from individual personalities, job pressures or ignorance. This debate, by failing to consider the seed of the problem, misses a critical point. Law schools have the power to shape personalities, teach students how to deal with real life pressures and educate attorneys about their ethical obligations. Currently, this power is used to produce attorneys who are able to analyze problems, express their ideas and argue cases. However, until it becomes the schools' goal to produce professionals, the bar will always be in the difficult position of asking its members to

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