Attorney Jonathan Emord
June 28, 2010
You know you’re getting old when almost all music, literature, art, and theatre that you like is unknown to those with whom you work and socialize. You also know you are nearing your end game when the most common discussion young people have with you concerns not your current projects but advice for their prospective careers. Here is how I respond to a young lawyer or lawyer to be.
You are nothing without integrity and firmly held principles. On the point of integrity, I tell young folks that there is never an instance when it is okay to sacrifice your integrity to achieve an end. In that regard, I relay a story from when I was about 25, having practiced law for just one year. A partner in a firm I worked for asked me to draft a pleading on behalf of a client that would recommend FCC retention of the fairness doctrine. The fairness doctrine was an awful broadcast regulation that placed the government in the role of a super editor, lording over how broadcast journalists exercised their First Amendment editorial discretion on controversial issues of public importance. Rascals in Congress still want this unconstitutional doctrine applied but its enemies are numerous and outspoken. Under the fairness doctrine, broadcasters who presented one side of a controversial issue of public importance were obliged to present the other side in a roughly equivalent fashion. The effect of the fairness doctrine was to cause most broadcast journalists to flee from controversy--either by avoiding editorial content altogether or by presenting it on issues that were clearly not controversial. In short, it achieved a pervasive chilling effect, dumbing down discourse in the idea and information market. As a First Amendment attorney, I abhorred the fairness doctrine’s effective censorship of controversial editorials. It offended my core beliefs in the Constitution and in freedom of speech.
Although an act of insubordination by a junior associate, I informed a partner for whom I worked that I could not in good conscience draft any pleading that would support the fairness doctrine because it violated the First Amendment. The dissent was considered unacceptable. How could a 25 year old associate refuse to comply with an order from an accomplished partner to do work? It is not the associate’s place to decide who the firm would represent or the firm’s allocation of work, after all, the associate should be grateful for having any work at all. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was expected to do the work even if I disagreed with the client’s position, that failing to do it was insubordination and grounds for termination, that a loss of a job for insubordination would make it very difficult for me to find another job, and that all lawyers must from time to time take on matters with which they have disagreement (it goes with the turf). I explained that I could not in good conscience do the work. I explained that I understood the refusal to be insubordination but could not apply whatever talent I had to support a law I believed unconstitutional. Ultimately the partners met to consider my fate. Although I am not privy to the reasons why, I was informed that I would not be terminated. I credit that to the good character of those for whom I worked and their wise reflection on the matter.
I raise the point for my young friends to inform them that without question at some point in their legal careers, often within the first few years, their integrity will be tested. They will be asked to take an action that may well offend their sense of honesty and decency or their core beliefs and principles. I consider it a fateful test of will that distinguishes young lawyers. Many will sacrifice their integrity to ensure employment or curry favor, but making that sacrifice spells ultimate ruination. Once one’s integrity is lost, it is very nearly gone for good in the eyes of even those who seek the sacrifice. I recommend to young lawyers that they keep an eye out for the inevitable test of their integrity and that they defend their integrity no matter what the outcome. Others will often long remember and respect the rare breed whose character remains impeccable, but even if not a soul knows on this earth and we suffer for righteousness sake, the sacrifice is duly noted where it matters most, in the Kingdom to come.
I also offer a second example of how indispensable integrity is to a professional, particularly a legal professional. In an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit from an administrative case at the Federal Communications Commission, a young attorney represented one of the petitioners. In the middle of his oral argument, he made a statement of material fact that elicited a question from one of the astute judges on the three judge panel. She asked pointedly for the citation of the page in the record where the fact could be found. The young lawyer said he could not cite the page but assured the judge that it was in the record. The judge then paused for a moment, leaning forward to ask the young lawyer if he was absolutely sure the fact was in the record. The lawyer looked her in the eye and said he knew for sure that it was in the record. This wise judge then looked to her two fellow judges on her right and her left and then stated abruptly, “next case.” She suddenly and pointedly ended the oral argument before it was completed and before rebuttal. The very next day a summary order issued from the court, three to zero denying the petitioner the relief sought—so fast it made your head spin.
I offer that example to young lawyers of the critical importance of being honest in your dealings with others. Had the young lawyer told the truth, he would have either admitted that he was unsure if the fact was in the record (if, indeed, his memory failed) or that he erred. Pride cometh before a fall. I ask those youngsters seeking my advice whether they think this lawyer could ever salvage his reputation before the court after telling this falsehood. Could he be trusted thereafter to tell the truth? Perhaps if the judges were merciful but only after years of consistently honest conduct (and even then, could we ever be certain that he would not tell a falsehood again?).
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For future lawyers and for young lawyers navigating a career in a profession that can epitomize the best and has occasionally revealed the worst in humanity, there is no substitute for integrity. There is never a justification for lying. When an old lawyer reclines on his death bed for the last time, he or she should be able to look back on a life of work and be able to say with confidence that he did his best to advance just causes, that he assiduously avoided the advancement of unjust ones, and that he lived a life of integrity.
© 2010 Jonathan W. Emord - All Rights Reserved