TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Jason Long on Oct 1, 2016

Journal Issue Date: Oct 2016

Journal Name: October 2016 - Vol. 52, No. 10

I find myself referring, more and more frequently, to the core values of being an attorney. It has become a convenient catch phrase I use to bail myself out when lawyers don’t like hearing the message that the legal industry is changing and we are going to have to change with it to continue to thrive. Typically, when I encourage the need for change, I will couple that with the statement “but we have to do so while maintaining adherence to our core values as attorneys.” That phrase is an easy “cop out” because everyone has a different interpretation of what our core values are and people are content if you are asking them to remain faithful to those principles they hold most dear.

The question then becomes, what are our core values? That is, what are those principles that define us and our profession? The answer to that question is not an easy one, and I suspect there would be a wide variety of responses within our bar. While some would say that learned, bespoke representation is a core value, others might argue that effective and zealous representation is of primary importance. Ultimately, no single answer is correct and often core values for one may be in conflict with core values for another. The trick is in defining those core values for the profession as a whole.

I believe an accurate response to the question begins with our professional obligation of respect for the Rule of Law. It is such a simple concept, and yet it can be misunderstood or impinged upon in a thousand different ways. Degradation of the Rule of Law is incremental and, at times, almost imperceptible. The legal profession has the primary duty to preserve and protect this most basic organizing principal of our society and educate the public on its crucial role. For most lawyers, the concept is second nature, such that we don’t even give conscious thought to its application. We need to remain consciously aware of the Rule of Law and threats to its integrity, especially in an era when changes to the profession are coming fast and from a multitude of directions.

Independence of the judiciary and the bar is a second core value I believe all lawyers can agree upon. For the judiciary, that means a system of selection and ethical canons to ensure no judge is beholden to any group or individual. It means adequate funding and staffing for effective and efficient administration of justice.  It means an appropriate respect for the bench from attorneys and the public, to ensure confidence in our judicial system. For the bar, independence means self-regulation. Compliance with our rigorous standards of professional conduct has to be a defining characteristic of who we are as a profession. Additionally, it means the protection of certain safeguards, like the attorney-client privilege, to maintain inviolate the ability of attorneys to represent their clients.

Access to Justice should be another universally accepted component of our core values as lawyers. One glance at the articles in this issue shows the commitment of our profession to access to justice as we celebrate pro bono month. Our system only works if we have confidence that all who need access to the courts have that access, regardless of position. Lawyers have an obligation to ensure the courthouse doors are effectively open to all for meaningful presentation of all viewpoints.  

I would not be so bold as to suggest that these are the only core values of our profession. In fact, I would not be surprised if some would disagree with the brief list I have provided. However, we need to begin having the dialogue of what our core values really are. We need to identify the bedrock upon which the profession is based so we will know what principles are inflexible as we move into a more dynamic marketplace.

Socrates is credited with the maxim “Know thyself.” As we focus upon the evolving legal marketplace and changes in the delivery of legal services, our profession and we as individuals should heed this advice. We cannot navigate the path forward without a fixed compass to guide us.

Jason Long JASON H. LONG is a partner with Lowe, Yeager & Brown in Knoxville. A graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law, he is a past president of the TBA Young Lawyers Division and the Knoxville Bar Association Barristers.