Letter From The Vice President Of The New York County Lawyers' Association And Chair Of Its Task Force On Professionalism

2007-08-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel :

Most lawyers, I find, are good people doing good work for the good of their clients and providing pro bono and civic service for the good of our society. Yet the public perception is otherwise, with members of the legal profession ranking ever lower in lists of occupations. Claims of disenchantment are heard within the profession. Although not the chief culprits, there were lawyers who seemed to play supporting roles - or at least to display a lack of vigilance or social responsibility - in the corporate governance scandals of a few years ago.

All these concerns tend to be lumped together under the term "professionalism." Fostering professionalism is something lawyers and their bar associations have always done. One of NYCLA's core purposes at its founding roughly a hundred years ago was "to elevate the standards of integrity, honor, and courtesy in the legal profession." With the increased public attention on lawyers - and often their frailties and excesses - it has seemed especially important to take stock. What does it mean to be a lawyer in New York City? Has that meaning changed and, if so, for better or for worse? What can the various segments of the profession (courts, law schools, bar associations, law firms and other law offices) realistically accomplish and are they doing enough? What can be done to improve public perception of lawyers and the role they play in society?

To this end, NYCLA created a special task force with a diverse and dedicated membership to bring focus to these issues. The Task Force on Professionalism, which I chair, has surveyed or met with scores ofNYCLA members, virtually all the New York metropolitan area law schools, many New York state and federal judges, members of other bar groups grappling with the same topics, and senior counsel of government and in-house legal counsel. (Please note: The Task Force would like to have more in-house counsel participate, just as NYCLA would like to have more in-house counsel as members.)

The majority view of those surveyed is that some decline in the behavior of the profession or at least some of its members has occurred. This perceived decline is attributed variously to financial pressures (too many lawyers and too much student debt), media fascination with "Rambo" tactics abetted by lawyer self-promotion, too much emphasis on hours and dollars at large firms, too little mentoring at small ones, ignorance of tradition and a decline in societal values generally. This perception of decline is not universal, however, as a minority report no real change or even some improvement, pointing to many lawyers' pro bono commitments or willingness, in the words of one survey respondent, to go the "extra mile to help their clients." Perhaps most discouraging are the more than occasional comments about lawyers whose word cannot be trusted. Another fairly persistent theme has been the need for mentoring in all types of practice.

We are now planning a series of focus groups, facilitated and led by task force members and representing various practice areas, to address the issues. Our ultimate objective is to hold several public forums and issue a report with a three-fold purpose: defining the concept of professionalism and the challenge it presents; assessing where the profession finds itself at the time of the report, and making suggestions for the future tailored to the realities of New York City practice.

We are neither nave nor arrogant enough to think that our report will suggest a one-size-fits-all conclusion, though it would not surprise me to see some emphasis on mentoring. We envision a report being issued in 2009, shortly after NYCLA completes the celebration of its Centennial, as a guide and reference point for the next one hundred years.


James B. Kobak Jr.