A long time ago, it feels, I started the process of getting through law-school. And throughout that time, a new perspective has seeped into my brain, enveloped my world-view, and impacted my Life. This is one of those of which it is somewhat embarrassing to confess publicly. Or even privately.
In undertaking to enter Law, one does not (at least, not in my case) just read about it. Or memorize a pile of factoids. You have to enter a new world, and become sensitive to new ways of looking at the world. My own preconceptions about the Law profession had not given me a true impression. Because probably the most powerful, overriding principle that I gleaned from my law-school education is that of Integrity.
Now, I see much more clearly how Integrity, of itself, impacts so profoundly the quality of our lives and our standing in the world. And I don’t think that most of us actually “have it”. That is, speaking for myself, it had not been the word that sounded prominently in my mind every time when I weighed choices. We may have good intentions. We want to be “good people,” we may be empathetic and care deeply about all living creatures — but to be totally keen on Integrity, of and in itself, is a different matter.
When I read the law casebooks and encounter the great rulings by such as J. Cardozo or J. Learned Hand, I was touched deeply by their brilliant, and earnest, striving to achieve Justice. These were sharp, intelligent men: well-read, skilled in rhetoric, and able to reason with involved logic while balancing opposing viewpoints. Beyond that, they recognized the difficulty of applying theoretical principles to the muddy real-world scenarios that Life delivers us into. It seems to me, that (in the great rulings that inspired me) they didn’t hang back. They rolled up their sleeves and delved into the mud, to sort out the known from the unknown and glean the hard facts and strike the best balance possible. For Justice, they created the best system of law ever achieved in the history of humankind.
Contrast this with the common, cynical attitude that most Americans take toward lawyers (it seems). It is popular to deride lawyers as amoral bloodsuckers out for nothing but to profit off of the conflicts of others. And who can’t change a lightbulb. I have heard the reference to the woman who spilled coffee on herself in McDonald’s and sued for a million dollars, proffered to illustrate how onerous our legal system has become.
What I experienced in school, and have been encountering in the workplace is a different story. Yes, there are individuals who seem to me to have lost their focus or who are just downright nasty, but no more than in the world in general and, quite possibly, far less. There are lawyers who will refuse to do anything that demeans their integrity or the dignity of the Court, even for money and even if it is perceived that they would not get caught. I see lawyers who strive very hard for their clients, to serve society and do the best job they possibly can, and for not a lot of pay.
Lawyers in California have to take the MPRE (Multi-State Professional Responsibility) exam and pass it before they can be licensed to practice. This is apart from the BAR Exam which is a grueling three-day marathon of torture. While in school, we had to take a Professional Ethics and Responsibility class, to prepare for this — and because the Bar has made it a prime focus to prepare all law students for a career that reflects a common code of ethics. I found this fascinating. And inspiring. It was as though the phrase itself began to acquire a new taste in my mouth. I wanted to know all the “rules”, and how to perform like a gentleman of Integrity in every possible scenario. Of which there are many — sometimes there is no straightforward answer to the question of which action to take. Thus our class discussions, and in-class hypos, were animated and interesting. I don’t see how anyone can come through that without acquiring a sort of reverence for the Law Profession and for Integrity in general.
What I have also begun to notice, is that for many people some of their problems that they are dealing with would have been avoided had they adhered to a strong principle of Integrity. Myself included. Some do just automatically seem to have it, and some don’t and don’t care. And some strive to reach it. I do think that the advantage of not having always having had it, is that it (should) leave us more able to empathize with the mistakes of others. A man can, with determination and will, reforge himself into a better person. I think perhaps that also creates a deeper appreciate and understanding of how it impacts all of us, than if we had been just perfect to begin with.
So my advice to you who are starting out in business, or are already in business but having problems, and most especially — for those starting a career in Law, is to build the most solid foundation under your feet that you possibly can. The substance of that foundation is Integrity. If it has ever been lacking in your life, then you should print a shining emblem of it and mount it into a frame bigger and more elegant that your school diploma and hang it upon your wall as a constant reminder of your new direction.
What does this mean? It means when your customer calls to complain and irritate you, don’t evade and don’t ever, every lie. Just say the truth. If the truth is embarrassing, so be it. Couch it in diplomatic terms if you will; if you can omit details without creating deception, that’s fine — but keep your eye on that certificate to yourself on your wall. If you have to take a loss (and miss your chance to buy that new tablesaw for your workshop) in order to make good on your promise to your client — do it without equivocation. It means if you are accidentally overpaid, that you return the part you did not earn. If you borrowed something with a promise to repay — you repay. You do what you say you will do. And beyond that, you keep in regular contact with those with whom you have a fiduciary duty, you respond, and fulfill your role and do it correctly.
And if you are a lawyer, that means never, ever taking the shortcut that constitutes a falsehood or undermines your Integrity in other ways. That can make your tactics a bit harder to do. You may have to give up some clever schemes that might have been fun to pull off. It might even mean you lose a case. If your client provides you with a healthy retainer, but you discover you cannot serve her needs as hoped — you return that money (you did deposit it into your client trust account, right?) no matter how nice it would be not to. Even if it feels as though your financial situation is caving in.
If that foundation is solid, then your house will not fall. Future encounters will go just a bit better, because people learn over time that the words coming out of your mouth are something they can rely upon. They will respect you. Judges will take you more seriously. Others will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt, or to give you credit, or to trust you with great responsibility. I imagine that, sitting across the table from a DA trying to negotiate a plea bargain, you would find him more receptive if he just knows that everything you say to him is the truth. Even if you have lied many times in the past, you can take on a new attitude and it will start to show.
It makes me squirm when on the televised news someone is indicted for corruption or other offense, and the lawyer whom they had just hired scant minutes before appears before the cameras to proclaim the suspect’s innocence and insult the prosecution for their witch-hunt. It demeans the dignity of the profession of Law, and people come to intuit that what is coming out of this lawyer’s mouth is puffery. He is positioning and being politic. And (I believe) he is stomping on his own integrity with big muddy boots.
In such events I think it is better to say nothing (in public) of what the defense attorney believes regarding the innocence of the client. He can recite facts (if permissible in this event), and remind us of the rules of law that require a level of evidentiary proof before that suspect may be called guilty. But whether he actually believes his client is guilty or liable, he should not publicly say this either way. If he proclaims his clients’ innocence when he truly believes them to be innocent, but displays a contrasting silence when he has the client whom he believes at that moment to be guilty, that of itself would undercut his ability to represent that client because his silence would become a signal of guilt. Thus, discretion is the only recourse. Do not claim anything that you do not know for a fact to be true. Serving as an officer of the Court (as lawyers are also regarded), and the cause of Justice, is better advanced by showing a sincere determination for truth and fairness, as opposed to just “winning.”
Integrity comprises the most solid Foundation that you should build your business upon, and you must treat it always as your utmost priority.