Monday, October 11, 2010

Cassidy on Professionalism

Rich Cassidy, in his On Lawyering blog, offers some thoughtful remarks on the professionalism requirement in Vermont. His remarks take the form of an Open Letter on Professionalism addressed to the Mandatory Continuing Legal Education Board, which is considering modification of the current requirement. Rich's post is well worth reading.

I commented on Rich's post. Here is a portion of that comment:
A number of years ago I wrote an essay in the Vermont Bar Journal in which I criticized the concept of “professionalism” and suggested that a different language would be appropriate — the language of virtue. What are the virtues of the good lawyer? That seems to me to be the central question. “Professionalism” is too easily confused with the mundane aspects of being a lawyer — things like how one should dress in court or carry oneself in public or run one’s business. In fact, in teaching countless professionalism seminars with Jim Knapp, I have found that it is difficult to keep the conversation from drifting into these mundane matters: questions, for example, of how to treat others turn quickly into questions of good business practice. That was the tendency I was concerned about in my essay years ago. I argued that what we really should be talking about is virtue and vice — character traits, not business practices, that distinguish a good person (let alone a good lawyer) from a bad. And I think it is an important question whether the requirements of “good” (in the virtue sense) lawyering can sometimes conflict with the requirements of being a good person. (In this regard, the recent discussion about whether lawyers should engage in deception raises some fascinating issues that I hope to explore in my own thinking and writing in the months to come.)
As Rich notes, many lawyers at professionalism programs have groused about the requirement. Some of them complain about the requirement that they attend in person or in a participatory fashion (e.g., via teleseminar). Some have argued that you simply can't teach an adult new tricks, that if someone is not already behaving in a professional manner, no two-hour seminar is going to mend their ways.

But the participation requirement is important because it gets people talking and forces even the reluctant to think for a minute about what they're doing. And while it is probably true that most people will not alter their behavior after two hours of discussion, that does not mean that the process of stopping to think -- to examine one's life, as Socrates thought we all should do -- is not valuable. Here I agree with Socrates: the unexamined life is not worth living. So even if you don't change your behavior after examining it, the process of examination itself is important. The professionalism requirement makes us examine how we act, how we respond in certain sorts of situations, how we carry ourselves and how we present ourselves. For that reason alone is serves a very important function.

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