Hanging on the wall in my office, right by the door so I see it every single day, is the Florida Bar Oath of Attorney:
“I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Florida;
“I will maintain the respect due to courts of justice and judicial officers;
“I will not counsel or maintain any suit or proceedings which shall appear to me to be unjust, nor any defense except such as I believe to be honestly debatable under the law of the land;
“I will employ for the purpose of maintaining the causes confided to me such means only as are consistent with truth and honor, and will never seek to mislead the judge or jury by any artifice or false statement of fact or law;
“I will maintain the confidence and preserve inviolate the secrets of my clients, and will accept no compensation in connection with their business except from them or with their knowledge and approval;
“I will abstain from all offensive personality and advance no fact prejudicial to the honor or reputation of a party or witness, unless required by the justice of the cause with which I am charged;
“I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed, or delay anyone’s cause for lucre or malice. So help me God.”
That oath, the one all Florida lawyers swear to, is pretty heavy stuff. Loosely translated, it’s the Ten Commandments for our profession:
I. Thous shalt honor the Constitution and the laws of our state and federal government.
II. Thou shalt not act like an ass in court.
III. Thou shalt not take positions that you know have no merit.
IV. Thou shalt not tell lies, especially in court.
V. Thou shalt keep thy lips zipped and thy trust account balanced.
VI. Thou shalt earn thy living honestly and not by taking advantage of clients or raiding thy firm’s IOLTA.
VII. Thou shalt respect other attorneys, judges, clients and opposing parties, no matter how difficult.
VIII. Thou shalt still vigorously represent thy clients.
IX. Thou shalt do pro bono work.
X. Thou shalt not put thine own interests before thy client’s.
But, it is often said, no human could be so perfect as to keep all ten of the Ten Commandments absolutely. Can any lawyer hope to abide by the Oath we all take?
I think so, and without having to be Christ-like (or Muhammad-like or Buddha-like, or whatever deity you ascribe to). We mere mortals are actually capable of keeping to the Oath. And it is as simple as avoiding stupid lawyer tricks.
You may have noticed that Big Law lawyers look down their noses at most solos. That is in part because of the large number of solos who seem to be oblivious to the Rules of Professional Conduct. Just take a look at the number of solos sanctioned, punished or disbarred every year, for everything from drug and alcohol abuse to lousy bookkeeping, and from misconduct in the courtroom to failing to keep clients apprised of the status of their cases.
It’s not that Big Law has a lock on legal ethics. It’s just that they tend to police within their own firms a bit better than some solos seem to. But that’s no excuse. We solos can do much better than that.
We can police ourselves and each other.
You are most likely reading this because you are on Solo Practice University, so that’s a good start. Taking courses on your practice areas, bookkeeping, lawyer marketing, and practice management skills will help you keep it between the lines.
You can also get involved with your local bar association’s small firm and solo practice section. Mine even has a listserv where we discuss all kinds of issues – including ethical dilemmas – and gain insights from well-seasoned solos. It’s a great way to seek out mentors.
Don’t forget about voluntary bar associations, Inns of Court and your local Federal Bar Association chapter. You owe it to yourself to be involved in these organizations and take advantage of the knowledge and advice of other lawyers. And for God’s sake – listen to what they have to say! The lawyers I have met at voluntary bar association meetings tend to be the sort who sit on judicial nominating committees and bar ethics grievance committees. They may want to be judges or maybe they are judges. Bottom line – they care about ethics in our profession. And if you like having a bar card, so should you!
Finally, you can turn to your state’s bar association, most of which have a law office management assistance program. They are there to help you start and keep your practice on the right foot, with office management forms, advice and counsel. Every state bar has a mechanism for asking ethical questions if you really just don’t know what to do in any given situation. And every state bar has assistance for lawyers in crisis, whether its drugs, alcohol or depression.
No lawyer is an island. We do better in groups. And where groups of solos gather you will find it easier to worship at the alter of legal ethics.
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.