Thoughts on ethics and diversity in one’s perspective

I can’t believe it’s March! I’m writing papers furiously, but this year has brought a mild winter, so I’m making an effort to be out seeing the sun as much as I can (if you live in Portland, you’ll understand this inclination). So, a café with a lot of windows is where I like to be; there are many.

Recently I’ve pondered the fact that the deeper you get into this profession, the more you must hold in confidence, while at the same time you are held to higher standards to be honest and above-board lest you violate, intentionally or not, one of the myriad ethics rules. If ever there are tensions in competing values, the attorney will feel it here. Contrary to popular opinion, lawyers cannot lie. Really! A inconsistency can result in discipline, however minor. And it will be pursued.

It’s easy enough to do what you think it right, to be a nice person, to not not lie–but mistakes, even if honest, does not result in easy forgiveness by a state bar ethics committee. Every jurisdiction also defines what constitutes the practice of law, and to be a lawyer in one jurisdiction does not necessarily authorize you to even hold yourself out as a licensed attorney anywhere else because someone might think you’re licensed in that jurisdiction, ask you a question, rely on it–and tag, you’re it. Some jurisdictions don’t even require that there be a matter in front of a court. It’s always on you to be clear, specific and darn sure people around you understand who you are, what you’re doing, etc. Sometimes it feels like the end of being a person.

In real life, lawyers are real people, and I’ve met plenty who have kept their humanity. I intend to be one of them, notwithstanding the fact my interest in health law seems to compel such. There Is a real balance to be had, and even though there are many burdens placed upon you, there is support and guidance to be found. Your colleagues generally want you to succeed, and the best of them will help you. While I intended to be a mentor as I have volunteered to be in the past, here in Oregon, the bar assigns new attorneys a mentor to help them get oriented, which is a real comfort as I intend to join the Oregon bar.

Who you are in terms of character does matter–not just to pass character and fitness for the state bar, but to do the job effectively. It is entirely relevant that one be conscientious about staying true to her word, and follow through on obligations. To join this profession means that you will acquire great knowledge and will be given keys to many doors others cannot enter. You will be a trustee and effective manager of assets for clients, and so it’s especially important that you be above board in money matters, and to be true to your word that you do what you say you will do, and to regularly communicate with others about what you’re doing because you are accountable. You have legal duties to do this, but social norms give rise to these expectations. Silence and inaction are not options for the attorney. In sum, the threat of punishment should not be what drives you to comply–it should really be a facet of who you are to do the right thing, to communicate that you’re doing the right thing, and to follow through on what you say you will do.

So, I have a calendar that tells me what do when, and to make sure I’m touching base with everyone just so I set proper expectations, and remind myself of my obligations. I’ve made sure that much of those communication-type things are part of my calendar, and that my calendar is on sky drive so it syncs with my phone and I can get multiple reminders. These are all good practice for what lay ahead as I take on more obligations and increase my accountability to others.

But this is my way of doing things. I don’t say you should do these things because I have many effective colleagues who are completely different and won’t do all these “Type-A” things because they have another system that works for them. The fact that others are effective and yet very different from me reminds me that diversity in the profession meets needs that I won’t necessarily address. Indeed, if I thought that others should do exactly what I did, I’d be mimicking the conduct of those who in recent era would say I couldn’t be an attorney because of my personal or physical traits, for example.

So, it’s always good to do a reality-check and make sure your perspective is balanced.  Character and fitness for the profession may well be adjudicated by the fact you are willing and capable of responding in a responsible way to the requirements of the profession, but ethics do not dictate logistics on how you get the job done, nor tell you what works in which context.  Hence, law requires creative Type B personalities in addition to all the diversity that individual experiences can offer.  Reflect on that and think deeply about what you can bring to the table.

3 March 2013

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