Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co. He is also president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.
The Golden Rule, also known as the ethic of reciprocity, in its various manifestations and restatements over thousands of years forms the basis for almost every culture in human history. Why then is it so hard to abide by this seemingly simple rule? More importantly, why is it so hard for lawyers to practice it?
We are duty bound to zealously represent our clients. Some lawyers treat this duty as a license to use every dirty trick in the dirty lawyer book to accomplish the client goals, as long as those tricks don’t technically violate a rule or cross an ethical line. Lawyers are human beings and as such are not immune to moral and ethical dilemmas. All of us, lawyer and non-lawyer, face choices every day. Those choices have consequences – good and bad. Many times, the prospect of personal or professional gain distracts us from making the right choice – the choice that we would want our similarly situated colleagues to make were the roles reversed.
Practicing the Golden Rule in our personal and professional lives should be the very essence of what it is to be a lawyer. But, how do we reconcile our ethical obligations to our client with the universal of the Golden Rule? That is somewhat of a trick question as I do not think they are necessarily at odds.
Lawyers have a system of rules governing the substance of what we do every day (statutes, regulations, court rules, case law) as well as ethical rules which govern our conduct. When we play in the lawyering space, we play knowing that these rules are in place – we accept them as a given, something that comes with the privilege of practicing law. Smart lawyers know and understand the rationale for these rules and do their best to mind both the spirit and the letter of the law.
Part of what it means to act zealously is to work to test and sometimes change the law. In order to do this, we sometimes have to advance arguments that might seem specious to some, valid to others. In addition to the law, lawyers must deal with people. People are a part of everything we do. Our clients provide us with strategic business plans, advertising copy, lists of people affected by reductions in force, contracts and the facts in litigation matters. When one understands the fluid nature of the law and that facts are recollected by people with differing perspectives of what occurred, there is almost always room for legitimate arguments to be made. However, making legitimate arguments is a far cry from manipulating the system, committing mischief, playing dirty or treating others poorly. There is never a legitimate excuse for failing to practice the ethic of reciprocity, the Golden Rule.
As lawyers, we should first and foremost represent our clients to the best of our ability. This does not imply taking cheap shots at opposing counsel or making frivolous arguments. Rather, implicit in this duty is the responsibility to act within the bounds of the rules set in place by the authorities that govern our practice. As a profession with a high calling, it is also our duty and responsibility to put ourselves into the position of the lawyer (and the client) on the other side of the matter and act according to the principles of the ethic of reciprocity. Respect that lawyer and her client as you expect to be respected. Treat the lawyer and her client the way that you expect and deserve to be treated. Do not be underhanded, do not lie. Abide by the Golden Rule in whichever manifestation you recognize it.
“…Love your neighbor as yourself.”