I was recently asked to give some opening remarks on the topic of professionalism in the practice of law. As a Christian lawyer, I was compelled to provide my insight on this topic that comes from my relationship with Jesus Christ, how He has changed my life, and the way I view the legal system today.
Professionalism in the practice of law is a goal that every attorney should strive for, but how would you define it, and more importantly, how do you attain it?
The bar association has defined it as having good character and competence. Competence is something that most, if not all, lawyers can attain by hard work.
Character is something different. I did a little research and came across six traits that define good character - trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship.
Unlike competence, you can’t develop good character by working harder. Character is something that flows from the inside and is displayed by your outward behavior.
It’s what defines you. It’s much different than your reputation, and when you start to worry too much about your reputation, you lose sight of your character.
John Wooden once said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” That doesn’t mean that reputation is not important, but your reputation will flow from your character and you will inevitably gain a good reputation.
The real question is how do you develop good character? To me, character, along with everything else that is good in life, is a gift from God.
I always look to the Bible to gain insight into things that I can’t quite explain by what I hear from the worldview. Three scripture passages come to mind.
The first is to love everyone as yourself. Jesus said the two most important commandments are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength (and) love your neighbor as yourself.” Mark 12:30-31. How does this apply to the practice of law?
We are in a constant struggle between zealously representing our clients and, at the same time, loving our adversaries. We all need help at times, so we can demonstrate this love by treating our adversaries fairly and with kindness and respect - in essence carrying each other’s burdens.
The practice of law is a long journey that will last about 40 years, but there is so much joy that you can experience if you show kindness and respect to everyone that you deal with, regardless of the circumstances. This is a critical element in the development of good character.
The second scripture passage is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where he said, “We are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world.” How does this fit into the practice of law?
We are in a profession where conflict is inevitable. We call each other adversaries.
We battle daily with other attorneys, their clients, sometimes our clients, judges, regulators, boards, commissions, committees - you name it. The natural instinct is to fight back, and when you do that the tendency is to treat people unfairly and with disrespect. Ultimately you lose your integrity, sense of fairness and start to slip into what can be viewed as unethical conduct.
When you realize that people are not the real enemy, your focus will change. That is not to say that you do not zealously represent your clients, but you can show respect for your adversaries, and once you realize that they are not your real enemy, it becomes much easier and is key to the development of good character.
The third thing is don’t ever be discouraged when things don’t go well. This leads me to my last scripture reference where Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that, “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.” What does this mean?
There will be bad days, bad weeks, bad months, and even bad years, where nothing seems to go well and you get frustrated with the legal system. I have had my share and have realized that more of them lie ahead.
My suggestion is to rejoice always in these trials and tribulations because they will give you the endurance you need to strengthen your character and give you what can be defined as biblical hope, or an expectation of something much bigger than you can ever experience on this side of heaven.
In conclusion, good character is a critical element of professionalism and our rules of professional conduct expand on all of the things I just mentioned. It requires honesty, responsibility, respect, fairness, caring for one another, and good citizenship.
ED. NOTE: New Jersey Commission on Professionalism in the Law will present Anthony Monzo, Esquire, of Monzo Catanese Hillegass, Court House, with a Professional Lawyer of the Year award Oct. 23.