Full Time Practice

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Affirmatively Choosing To Do Things That Are Good

(These excerpted remarks are taken from a talk given by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at the JRCLS 2008 Annual Fireside.)

The remarks below are taken from a talk entitled "On Being Ethical Lawyers".  Justice O'Connor gave two examples of attorneys who were put in difficult ethical circumstances: one, a criminal defense attorney, who didn't stop a prosecutor from possibly altering evidence; and another, a transactional attorney, who was asked to do things that were not consistent with the spirit of the law.

Justice O'Connor gave some words of advice to those of us who may find ourselves in similar, difficult circumstances. 

There are at least two important parts to being an ethical lawyer. First, as an ethical lawyer, you must refrain from doing things that are wrong. I trust that all of you who are listening will do that without more encouragement on my part. I want to focus on the second part of being an ethical lawyer. An ethical lawyer must affirmatively choose to do things that are good. I think you will find out as you enter practice that this second part will pose the greater challenge to you.

[Y]ou cannot let yourself forget that you are an officer of the court and that you are dedicated first to truth and justice.

The hardest thing you must accept as an ethical, moral lawyer is that it is not your job to win for your client at all costs. You are an officer of the court; that means that one of the costs you must never pay is to put the law to one side. No matter how much it may prejudice your client, you must never advise him—either through action or inaction—to break the law or tell an untruth.

[I]f you are not vigilant about those crucial moments, if you let silence reign when you must speak up, even the best-intentioned of us might find ourselves in an unspeakable dilemma.

It is a heavy responsibility that is placed on your shoulders when you become an officer of the court. We ask for your vigilance, not only in the courtroom but out of it. We ask for your constant fidelity to the law. We ask you to do and say things that could make you very unpopular, perhaps with the people who are paying your salary. We demand that each and every one of you stand for truth and the rule of law, no matter the personal consequences.

[Y]ou must make up your mind well in advance that you will speak up instead of being silent. I know you are all capable not only of refraining from wrongdoing but also of doing and saying what is right.

These words of advice can not only help us in our professional conduct, but also in our personal conduct. Thank you, Justice O'Connor.

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