Sunday, November 14, 2010

More on Professionalism: What Is Meant by Integrity?

The professionalism rule promulgated by the Vermont Supreme Court defines professionalism as "conduct consistent with the tenets of the legal profession." In an earlier post I began a discussion of the tenets listed in the rule. This post continues that discussion.

Two of the tenets listed -- integrity and character -- raise interesting and fundamental issues of morality (avoiding for now the terms "ethics"). Here I want to talk about integrity,leaving character for future consideration.

"Integrity" is a word like "democracy" -- it denotes something good, something to be praised. It sounds good, but its meaning is often unclear. Everybody -- especially government officials, businessmen, advertisers, and lawyers -- claims to have integrity, just as nearly every nation wants to claim to be a democracy. (The fact that no nation is really a democracy in the strict sense should give us pause here; once the "strict sense" is eschewed, what bounds can be set for the meaning of a word?) Integrity, like democracy, is something to claim, something to prize; it is a label of praise -- but, it seems, it is not always something to be clear about. Many who claim it use it as a sales pitch as much as a real description of who and what they are. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they have something in mind that they value beyond profit: what could it be?

At its root, integrity relates to the ability of a person to integrate all aspects of his or her being into a single whole; it means completeness or unity of character (setting aside for the moment the fact that "character" is also one of the listed tenets). Integrity, of course, can also mean something like soundness, as when we speak of the integrity of a bridge; perhaps that meaning can be extended to entail moral soundness, though determining the standards of moral soundness would surely require a good deal of thought and debate. My dictionary tells me that integrity can also mean strict adherence to a moral code or set of rules. Consideration of that meaning would lead us into debates about what the moral code or set of rules should include and what it must exclude in order to count for purposes of integrity -- after all, Adolf Hitler displayed remarkable consistency in his adherence to a strict code of rules, though most of us would find his code to be highly objectionable. 

What does it mean for a lawyer to demonstrate integrity? The answer is not obvious and may relate to other tenets like character and attention to mental and physical health. Certainly those other tenets must be implicated if we take integrity to mean the weaving of all aspects of one's being into a consistent whole, into a specific character. I think this must be the core meaning of integrity in the context of lawyer professionalism, for if we shift to thinking of integrity in terms of moral soundness or strict adherence to a moral code, we must be able to provide some specificity about what counts as a sound or proper morality for a lawyer. That has long been the subject of debate and has plagued the effort to develop a professional code of ethics. It would make for a fascinating discussion in the graduate school seminar room (and I would love to engage in that discussion with interested people), but it is not generally the sort of topic that busy lawyers want to grapple with in a CLE program or one that is likely to produce a room full of interested, enthusiastic participants. In any event, if living with integrity means we must be moral or ethical (I resist the tendency to see these as two different things, but more on that later), then professionalism reduces to ethics -- not what the Court had in mind when it set out on this road. 

But wait. Let's say integrity involves the creation of a wholeness out of one's life, a successful attempt to pull together the various aspects of one's being -- one's physical and mental state, one's ways of interacting with others, one's beliefs, one's morals -- into one consistent thing we might call one's character. Even then, is it not the case that not every wholeness, not every character we might create, can be the sort of thing deserving of praise? Is it not the case that only some kinds of character should be encouraged? In other words, is it not the case that the idea of moral soundness creeps into our discussion no matter what we take integrity to mean? We do not praise the integrity of people who consistently do everything in their power to undermine the health of their body, mind, and relationships with others. It is not every kind of wholeness and unity that we admire and want to set before our profession as an ideal.

And so, in the end, we are left with nothing but dust in our hand when we try to grasp what "integrity" might mean for a lawyer. Is integrity a good thing? Well, not always. When is it good? It is precisely this that we want to know -- and precisely this on which the professionalism rule offers no guidance whatsoever.

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