The Court Clarifies the Oath

When those law school graduates who just passed the bar in July take their oath before the Tennessee Supreme Court this month, they will be pledging to do something a little different than you did. When you stood before the court with your right hand in the air, you swore or affirmed, among other things, to “truly and honestly demean myself in the practice of my profession to the best of my skill and abilities, so help me God.”

But now lawyers will agree to something else. On Sept. 16, the court amended Rule 6, Section 4 of the Rules of the Tennessee Supreme Court, changing the oath. Rule 6 is all about admission of attorneys, and the court has tweaked the agreement.

Now, new lawyers will say “In the practice of my profession, I will conduct myself with honesty, fairness, integrity, and civility.”

That means about the same thing but is more direct, clear and specific.

Merriam-Webster defines “demean” as “to conduct or behave (oneself) usually in a proper manner” or “to lower in character, status or reputation.”

That’s pretty vague! The new language of our oath sets out more clearly what is expected: You should be honest, fair, have integrity and be civil. It’s basically the Golden Rule.

“We as a court, and I personally, have witnessed the growing lack of civility in our practice and in our country,” Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins says. “Because of that, as leaders of the profession, we felt we needed to put more emphasis on civility … We felt like it was appropriate.” He said the hope was to highlight for lawyers that they should practice in a civil way.

Several other states have taken similar steps. Bivins says members of the court researched those oaths, revised and fine-tuned, and ultimately arrived at wording unique to Tennessee. At a monthly business conference they discussed and voted unanimously to change the oath.

Belmont Law Professor David L. Hudson Jr. wrote about civility in a recent ABA Journal article: “In the 1985 case In Re Snyder, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger noted that everyone involved in the judicial process owes a duty of courtesy to all other participants. And as officers of the court, ‘the license granted by the court requires members of the bar to conduct themselves in a manner compatible with the role of courts in the administration of justice.’ When lawyers fail to follow this standard, they not only lower the bar for the profession, but they set themselves up for disciplinary action.”1

If it’s been a minute since you stood before the court and swore your oath, you may want to skim through Rule 8: Rules of Professional Conduct.2 It’s long and quite detailed but it gets right to the point in Section 1:

Essential characteristics of the lawyer are knowledge of the law, skill in applying the applicable law to the factual context, thoroughness of preparation, practical and prudential wisdom, ethical conduct and integrity, and dedication to justice and the public good.

Section 10 adds:

These principles include the lawyer’s obligation zealously to protect and pursue a client’s legitimate interests, within the bounds of the law, while maintaining a professional, courteous, and civil attitude toward all persons involved in the legal system.

How to Live This Oath

In Robert Fulghum’s bestselling book,3 he explains that “how to live and what to do and how to be” he learned in kindergarten. You probably did too. But if you unlearned any of this through the years, here’s a refresher of part of his list:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don’t hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Flush.

(Those last two are not outlined by the court, but still good practices.)

By clarifying the wording in the oath, the court reminds you — in fact, has you swear — to tell the truth, be fair and nice. This applies all the way through your career. How hard can that be?

— Suzanne Craig Robertson

SUZANNE CRAIG ROBERTSON is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal and a big fan of civility.

NOTES
1. David Hudson, ABA Journal, Sept. 1, 2019, www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/lawyer-speech-triggers-both-civility....
2. Rule 8, Rules of Professional Conduct of the Tennessee Supreme Court, www.tsc.state.tn.us/rules/supreme-court/8.
3. All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum, www.robertfulghum.com.

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