Georgia Bar Journal, Vol. 5 No. 1; ©State Bar of Georgia, 1999-2010. Used by permission, all rights reserved.
The Bylaws of the State Bar of Georgia specify the duties of the President. One of those responsibilities is to “deliver a report at the Annual Meeting of the members of the activities of the State Bar during his or her term of office and furnish a copy of the report to the Supreme Court of Georgia.” Following is 1998-99 President William E. Cannon, Jr.’s report delivered on June 18 to the Board of Governors.
I’ve made a career out of occasionally – make that frequently – doing the unexpected. What better way to end my year as Bar President than by giving a nontraditional report. I don’t want to spend this time covering what has happened this past year, but talk instead about out future.
We have unfinished business on the Board of Governors. As I look out across this body I see good friends who have devoted themselves to our profession. But good friends should be able to talk frankly and we need to do that.
We need to have a more diverse Board of Governors. We need African-American board members, Hispanic board members, more Asian-American lawyers, more street lawyers, lawyers from large firms, sole practitioners, female lawyers, transactional lawyers and corporate lawyers. In short, we need to have as many different kinds of lawyers as possible.
You all know how much I have enjoyed participating in some of the spirited debates we have had. I’ve even instigated a few when things were getting too dull. The reason I love debate so much is that it generates such great ideas. How many mistakes have we avoided when someone raised a point that might have been overlooked? Now think how much better our debate could be if we had input from a more diverse group. Think also how much better we could meet the needs of all our members if they were better represented on this Board.
Voluntary bars offer wonderful opportunities to ethnic and practice groups. But they also can insulate members from other groups of lawyers unless a continuing effort is made at outside involvement. A unified bar can provide the opportunity for such groups to meet, exchange information and grow professionally and intellectually.
Each of us knows someone who would make a good Board member and just needs a little encouragement. I ask you to take the extra step, find people who don’t look like most of us, don’t act like most of us, and don’t think like most of us and encourage them to consider running for a seat on this Board. We need board representation at all levels of the Bar and we cannot be bashful about addressing the question.
My friends, we must also talk about our own involvement. As members of this Board we must do more than gather a few times a year and debate the issues of the day. We must be professional examples in our communities and inspire our members to higher professional conduct. We desperately need speakers to address civic clubs on some of the basic issues facing our profession and many Board members have not yet signed up for the Bar’s Speakers Bureau. Georgia Legal Services is always in need of funding and yet many Board members have not contributed. So many lawyers do not take advantage of services the Bar has to offer and yet many Board members do not promote the Bar with their constituents.
Please don’t take this the wrong way. I know that your service on this Board takes a lot of time and I don’t mean to belittle it. But I want to encourage you to do more than the minimum. Our profession needs you more than ever. You are in a unique position to make a positive impact on the practice of law and I beg you to do it. You hold positions of trust and honor because you are men and women of integrity and courage. Don’t be afraid to step forward. Don’t wait to be called.
Another area of concern I have seen this year is the growing dissatisfaction by lawyers with the practice of law. Too many lawyers now find law practice a burden rather than a challenge – a cynical business rather than an idealistic profession. We do not need cynical lawyers involved in our judicial system. If left unchallenged, this problem poses grave danger not only to our profession but to society.
At the root of our legal system is a simple ideal – before the law everyone is treated equally. Rich and poor, black and white, men and women must believe that the law offers an inviolable sanctuary to the victims of bigotry, economic disparity and violence. Without this belief, some members or our society will no longer engage in peaceful resolution of political problems, but will resort to means frequently seen in other nations.
The guardians of this ideal of equality before the law are our lawyers. We are asked to put aside our natural desires for wealth, popularity and leisure time and represent those who cannot pay, whose views make us unpopular and whose representation requires long nights and weekends of work. Thus our satisfaction must come not from the material gains afforded lawyers, but from the knowledge that we protect the very foundation of our free nation.
However, this foundation is being eroded by changes in society which have allowed cynicism to creep into our minds. As some of our firms have become large international businesses we have forgotten that lawyers must remain independent from their clients and not erase the line between a profession and a business. As our income has grown we have all forgotten that we have a responsibility to respect even clients who cannot pay. We work harder and harder on a treadmill that our own expectations have created and then wonder out loud why we are not satisfied. And being the great rationalizers that we all are, we decide that there must be something wrong with our legal system rather than us. It’s all become just a game in which right and wrong no longer matter. So maybe, we think, it’s okay if we no longer care as much, if we focus more on ourselves, if we become more cynical.
But there is no satisfaction to be found down that road. A profession built upon idealism cannot offer satisfaction to cynics. We must remember why we wanted to be lawyers and what that our profession calls us to do if we want to be truly satisfied. And we must find that satisfaction if we are to provide the level of representation that much of our society needs.
An interesting side effect of loss of satisfaction with the practice of law is showing up in law students and young lawyers. Too many law students want to leave the practice of law before they actually obtain any real experience as lawyers. They want to be judges before they gain expertise as lawyers.
Last year I was in the Midwest taking a deposition when a summer clerk with a large firm came in to observe. During a break in the deposition I asked the clerk what area of the law she was interested in. She told me she wanted to be a judge. I told her that I was disappointed to hear that she had lost interest in becoming a lawyer before she had finished with law school.
It is so important that our judges gain experience as a lawyer before taking to the bench. Before dispensing justice they must have seen firsthand the practical results of judicial decisions on the parties involved. Before reaching a decision they must fully understand the positions of both sides, and that is difficult to do if one has little experience as an advocate. The expression “been there, done that” is one that I hope most judges would find applicable to situations facing them. We have to keep young lawyers interested in the practice of law and satisfied with its rewards. We want young lawyers aspiring to greater proficiency in the practice of law rather than dreaming of leaving it. We must be honest and tell young lawyers that the real rewards of law practice are not material.
Another area of change that we must address in the future is the growing gap between large firms and small firms. Mid-sized firms are becoming an endangered species and I am concerned. As large firms have grown into national and international enterprises, common interests between those firms and lawyers in solo and small firm practices are disappearing. There is open talk that the rules of conduct for the two groups should be different–that the lawyer-client relationship is somehow different when the size of the client or the law firm changes. It sounds more and more like some lawyers think large firm practice and small firm practice actually involve being a member of two different professions.
In truth, lawyers from all size firms face similar issues. Certainly the issue of maintaining independent professional judgment is not limited to either small or large firms. A solo practitioner may struggle to develop business and be tempted to assuage financial concerns by taking on clients that pose serious conflict of interest problems. A large firm department or practice area may have such close ties with a large client that it is reluctant to refuse to engage in certain conduct for fear that client may take a large amount of business to another firm.
Lawyers from a variety of practice environments must deal with the issue of professional responsibility. A solo or small firm lawyer may face challenges in this area because of a lack of peer support or counseling. With so many young lawyers hanging up a shingle right out of law school, there are no late afternoon sessions with an older lawyer exchanging war stories that actually teach proper conduct and professional courtesy. With no partner watching, it may be tempting to meet payroll out of the escrow account. It is my fondest hope that the Bar’s Standards of the Profession mentoring program headed by John Marshall can address this problem, but we must be mindful of the challenge it poses.
Large firm lawyers also face future problems with professional responsibility. It is much easier to hide behind a large group and use the Nuremberg defense of “I was only following orders” when working for a large firm. Multi-state practice also tempts one to blame conduct on ignorance of local customs or rules.
The strengths of the State Bar and the future of our profession depend upon unity. What ever our differences, we are still lawyers. We all took the same oath and we all have a deep and abiding love for the law. At a time when other professions are casting a hungry eye upon us, we cannot keep moving in opposite directions.
This year we unanimously recommended to the Supreme Court new rules of discipline. The rules respond to some of the differences between firms and offer some common ground for unity in the profession, and I urge the Supreme Court to enact these rules as rapidly as possible.
I also ask the managing partners of large firms to encourage a return to Bar activity by their partners and associates by giving credit for such activity. I ask solo and small firm lawyers to sacrifice a day at the office occasionally to participate in a Bar committee or section. The State Bar can be an effective defender of our system of justice but it must have full participation by all segments of our membership.
I have closed every speech I gave to a civic club this year by telling the group how proud I am of Georgia lawyers – and I want you, my colleagues and friends, to know that I truly mean that. As we debate important issues, we do so with courtesy and understanding of differing opinions. This Board of Governors operates at the highest level of professionalism and your strong sense of fair play ensures that this organization will remain a great institution for years to come.
I want to close by thanking you and all Georgia lawyers for allowing me to serve during the past year. (My wife) Dawn and I have made new friends, seen new places and have been the recipients of much kindness. I have been allowed to do something I enjoy so much – telling the public good things about Georgia lawyers. I have received much needed help from Immediate Past President Linda Klein, President-elect Rudolph Patterson and the Executive Committee, as well as Executive Director Cliff Brashier, General Counsel Bill Smith and all of the Bar staff. YLD President Ross Adams has been a trusted advisor and friend. To all of you I offer my deepest gratitude and to Rudolph, my best wishes for a great year.
When I was a child sweeping the wooden floors of my father’s store I had big dreams of what I might be doing as an adult. Nothing I dreamed of at the time could be any more exciting than the last 12 months. Thank you for the opportunity of a lifetime.