Thursday, March 4, 2010

Integrity Among Lawyers (and Others)

[The following thoughts arose out of discussions of some of the struggles endured by members of the LCL Solo Practitioners Forum that I facilitate.]

There is no greater delight than to be conscious of sincerity on self-examination. (Mencius)

  • A legal task took less time than you expected. Although ample funds are sitting in the client funds account, you bill only for time actually spent.
  • A practice that is profitable but ultimately irresponsible has gained momentum in the law firm that employs you. To the extent that it is improper, responsibility for it is spread across the whole firm, including those in positions of greater power than yours. Despite that, and the fact that raising the issue may have a negative impact on how the partners view you, you speak up.
  • You find yourself burning the midnight oil, putting an inordinate amount of effort and diligence into a family law case on behalf of a client who you know will probably never pay you; but you do it anyhow, even though you wish you’d never met this client.
  • You find that you can board a Green Line train to work from a rear door by merely waving any card, and you watch others do so and take their seats. You bother to walk to the front of the train and pay the $2, by which time no seats are left.
  • A fellow lawyer, you observe clearly by her behavior in his office and in court, is in rough shape, not firing on all cylinders. Though you hate to intrude into someone else’s business, you can see that she is on a path toward harming clients and her own career. You express your concern and offer to go with her to LCL for a confidential assessment, knowing full well that the suggestion may well elicit an angry, defensive reactio

Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Issues of integrity arise (whether or not consciously acknowledged) in all our lives every day – perhaps even more so in the lives of lawyers, who on the one hand sometimes find themselves representing the interests of the dishonest and vile, and on the other hand operate within an intricate foundation of laws that would seem to require an honorable respect in order to remain standing.

Fear of discovery, punishment, humiliation, etc. is, of course, a major help in making responsible choices in the face of all the short-term rewards of cheating. That’s a major raison d’ĂȘtre for institutions such as the auditing wing of the IRS, or the Office of Bar Counsel. But it has not stopped the Bernie Madoffs or Bernie Keriks of the world (no offense to people named Bernie), or those who ignored construction standards in the Big Dig, or those scientists and pharmaceutical companies who publish only studies supporting their (profitable) propositions and ignore contradictory evidence, or … well, you know all of this. And the fact that so many people, so much of the time, ignore social values and go for quick profit (even your personal trainer who demands to be paid in cash) makes it all too easy to rationalize doing the same.

But there is an upside to behaving ethically, responsibly, and maintaining personal integrity. You go about your life without fear of being “caught.” You do not carry the burden of guilt, or go to great lengths to escape awareness of that guilt. To the extent that “what goes around comes around,” you are ready for what comes around. Your friends and associates come to trust you, and with reason. Your knees don’t shake if you get a letter from the BBO (at least not as much as some other lawyers’ knees). If you believe that the purpose of life is to amass the most money or fame in the shortest time, you may be disappointed. But, as they say, you can look at yourself in the mirror. Your clients, coworkers, bosses, and friends may never notice, may never thank you. But inside, where it counts, integrity must be its own reward.

This above all; to thine own self be true. (William Shakespeare)