What is Professionalism?

Last week I had the privilege of being this year’s recipient of the Edward Shea Professionalism Award given by the Maryland Bar Foundation. The award, created in 1996, was named in honor of Baltimore attorney and past president of the Maryland State Bar Association (MSBA), the late Edward F. Shea, Jr. The award recognizes a MSBA young lawyer who exemplifies the professionalism, civility, integrity, compassion, and commitment to public service embodied by Mr. Shea throughout his career. What an enormous honor! 🙂 In my acceptance speech I talked about what professionalism means to me and how my views of professionalism have been shaped by my work in the MSBA and my experiences with so many of my esteemed colleagues who have exhibited an admirable dedication to our profession through their work in the bar. Here are a few excerpts of my speech that I believe accurately reflect what professionalism means to me:

This award means so much to me because it is such a great honor to serve my profession, and also a real blessing when others recognize my efforts.

As you know, as lawyers we perform many different functions – we are advocates, we are counselors, we are negotiators, and we are conciliators. But perhaps our most significant role is that as members of the legal system, we are officers of the court. As officers, we have a special responsibility to our legal system. Our profession has been granted the power of self-regulation. We are part of an industry where the rules are made by lawyers, enforced by lawyers, and ultimately interpreted and decided by lawyers. It is essential that our profession maintain our ability of self-governance and not be influenced by government entities that may be driven by public opinion or popular issues of the day. Lawyers must demonstrate that we are capable of self-regulation in order to maintain the public’s confidence in the system. How do we do that you ask?

We have the responsibility of making sure that our conduct as lawyers comports with our requirements under the Maryland Lawyers Rules of Professional Conduct. Adherence to these Rules assists us in maintaining a positive public perception of our legal system and further ensures civility and confidence in the legal process. As a legal community we should expect members of our profession to reflect the highest integrity that that we should also expect of ourselves. Neglect of any of these responsibilities would compromise the autonomy that we have enjoyed as well as the public interest which it serves.

Being a lawyer is one of my greatest accomplishments. And being a lawyer means more to me than just completing the work for which I get paid. It is about committing to the values that I swore to uphold. We must all continue in the path and follow in the footsteps of individuals like Mr. Edward Shea, also known as the “Father of Professionalism,” a man who made remarkable contributions to our bar and several others like him by rededicating ourselves to those values, principles, and ideals that we cherish.

Thank you……from the bottom of my heart.

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Our Responsibility

A new post by my contributing blogger and colleague, Joe Perry:

The bloggers have declared war.

I found law school to be a mostly nasty place, so it’s hardly surprising to me that law school administrations—nefarious collectives charged with reducing once-beautiful human beings to soulless, precedent-regurgitating automatons—are capable of fudging numbers.  For many, however, this bending, manipulating and outright fabrication of employment figures has been the equivalent of the legal education system crossing the Rubicon.  And in response, the internet is now littered with websites exposing and lambasting the “law school admissions scam.”[1]

Several years ago, like so many others, I took my marching orders from U.S. News and World Report.  With two distinct options on the table, I selected the law school highest on the list without so much as a second thought.  And I made that selection without knowing that the numbers that got my school that ranking may or may not have been massaged.

Now, that doesn’t make me mad enough to start a protest website, but there’s good reason I’m not bitter.  Had I gone for option #2, I would have gone to school in a different part of the country, and would have never met my wife.  In essence, I paid six figures for the chance to bump into the woman of my dreams at a nightclub.  I’d do it all again, of course—even if I knew my choice was being made on fabricated employment data, but that’s one expensive first date.

And that’s partly the point.  Where to attend law school is an expensive decision, and the fact that applicants’ money might be extracted under false pretenses serves to justify all the rage against the machine currently found online.  For those bloggers and discontents truly devoted to changing the system and preventing others from making ill-informed choices, I have a serious respect.  They are shining a spotlight, and it would be foolish to believe that the spotlight hasn’t helped motivate change.[2]

But there’s even more to it than the money angle.  The same institutions that are being accused of taking money under false pretenses are also the ones charged with educating future lawyers about ethics.  This is a lot like your mother scolding you to stay away from sweets while she shovels cupcakes into her mouth.

Such hypocrisy—even the perception of such hypocrisy—creates a serious obligation for any attorney aware of the problem, regardless of whether they have ever personally felt wronged by the system.  Every day, there are newly-minted lawyers out there desperately searching for employment and/or trapped in employment they despise.  And many might rightfully feel bamboozled by the system, having paid particular attention to employment statistics when applying to law school just a few years before.

For those of us who have been in the trenches for a few years now, it is our job to pick up the ball where our legal education institutions have dropped it.  We are obligated to impress upon the newest members of our community that while it appears some law schools can have their cake and eat it too, we cannot.

No matter how rough it gets out there, we need to convey to new attorneys that our conduct is governed by ethics rules and codes.  We need to convey this message even when some of the very people charged with teaching those rules are making a mockery of them.

If law schools are dropping the ball, we, as mentors, are all that’s left.

Joe Perry is a Senior Staff Attorney with the D.C. Office of Bar Counsel.  He can be contacted at perryj@dcobc.org.


[2]           See, e.g., Sloan, K., ABA gives ground on law schools’ graduate jobs data reporting, http://www.law.com/jsp/nlj/PubArticleNLJ.jsp?id=1202534457162&slreturn=1 (detailing changes in the manner the ABA will collect graduate data in the future)


Looking for a mentor? MSBA members have access to a Mentoring Program.

Looking for a step in the right direction? Check out MSBA’s Legal Career Center, or this recent article by Pat Yevics: Legal Career Building Tips. Both are great tools at any level of your career.

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