Building a Better Legal Profession :: The Old Blog


Our Professional Obligations by refirm2007
December 4, 2007, 6:50 pm
Filed under: Law reform

Judge Baer (SDNY) is NOT happy. Last Friday he released an opinion containing some strong words for the legal profession (HT: WSJ):

The legal profession has seen a transformation wherein the naked competition and singular economic focus of the marketplace have begun to infiltrate the practice of the law, subordinating high standards of service, collegiality, and professionalism as a result.

The next 125 pages are spent detailing the misbehavior of a couple of attorneys practicing before him. But Baer’s not done with the rest of us:

The fact that partners are at times made and retained for their rainmaking skills and not for their legal skill, that the number of billable hours is not only the alpha and omega of bonuses but that these hours – or at least the ones that count – often exclude pro bono hours, or that who gets credit for originating a piece of business can throw a firm into turmoil and prompt internecine struggles, or that the bottom line has eclipsed most everything else for which the practice of law stands or stood to the extent that the practice of law is now frequently described as a business rather than a profession.

No one’s confused into thinking that there was some ‘golden age’ of practice, where law was exclusively a profession. Law has always been both a profession and a business, and will continue to be. But Judge Baer’s not alone in thinking that we’ve moved too far away from the roots our professional obligations to clients and the community.

In this particular case, it seems clear that the client isn’t getting anywhere by hiring lawyers that make Judge Baer this mad. You don’t hire a firm thinking, “I want the Judge to write a 129 page opinion disciplining my attorney. That’s the best way to victory.” So put this case aside for a second.

Judge Baer’s opinion provides a good opportunity to step back and evaluate your own work for a second. It’s a chance to make sure we’re really living up to our professional obligations of service to others.

– Do we really have the same interests as our clients? It should depend on how each side measures success, yes. But for many attorneys at large firms, the need to achieve high billables — using this number as the measure of our professional success — means tracking something fundamentally contrary to client outcomes. Is there a better way to do this?

– Even in a time with steep competition and ever-increasing business pressure, are we still looking out for our community? Does our understanding of the law as a profession include service to something or someone greater than ourselves?

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