Breathing New Life Into Professionalism in the Practice of Law

Topics: Corporate Legal, Government, Law Firms, Legal Innovation


Something important happened at the Harvard Law School on April 10. More than 100 leaders from across the spectrum of legal service came together to consider how to breathe new life into professionalism in the practice of law. It was an inspiring event.

The conference was organized by the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession. It was based on the seminal essay, Lawyers as Professionals and Citizens (the “Essay”), written by Ben Heineman, Bill Lee, and David Wilkins, each a renowned leader of an important segment of the profession.

I commend the Essay to everyone who is concerned about the future of legal service. It shines a light on issues that go to the core of the role of lawyers in our world, and which have received too little attention in our discourse.

The Essay presents a thoughtful, realistic, and pragmatic examination of contemporary professionalism. It observes that the current dynamics in the legal marketplace exacerbate vulnerabilities of professionalism in law:

There is widespread agreement that the legal profession is in a period of stress and transition; its economic models are under duress; the concepts of its professional uniqueness are narrow and outdated; and, as a result, it ethical imperatives are weakened and their sources ill-defined.

The authors propose a four-part model for lawyer duties, which, as the Essay’s title suggests, go well beyond duties to clients, encompassing duties to society at large. They examine the challenges to professionalism and the application of their proposed model in the concrete context of the behaviors of large corporate law departments, large law firms, and the law schools that educate the lawyers in each; those settings, the authors reason, are known to them and set standards for the entire profession.

The authors go on to assert that an increased focus on professionalism is essential to sustainable law practices. It calls upon the leaders of our profession to take action to restore the proper focus, and to make the sacrifices and accommodations which will be necessary. Importantly, it recognizes that effective action will require collaboration among all segments of the profession.

At the outset of the Essay, the authors express a simple objective:

We… hope that this essay will stimulate an integrated discussion among the broad range of actors with a stake in the future of the legal profession not just about the pressing economic issues in major institutions but also about the equally pressing concerns relating to ethical responsibilities.

That discussion began on April 10 in Cambridge.

The day began with a call to action from the authors and Martha Minnow, the Dean of Harvard Law School. The authors’ passion about their mission was moving.

They got down to specifics; they ventilated the challenges; and they suggested actions that could make a difference.

There were two other panels during the day. In the first, Stanford Law Professor Robert Gordon examined professionalism through the lens of history; and Kim Coopersmith, Chair of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, discussed it in the context the realities of contemporary law practice. In the second panel (which closed the day) distinguished leaders from settings beyond those considered by the Essay (Judith Areen, Executive Director of the American Association of Law Schools; William Hubbard, President of the American Bar Association; Robert Grey, President of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity; and Ursula Wynhoven, General Counsel of the U.N. Global Compact) shared their observations.

The heart of the conference, however, consisted of spirited interaction among all the participants over several hours that started in the late morning and lasted through mid-afternoon. In break-out sessions moderated by leaders from the three settings discussed in the Essay—Laura Stein from The Clorox Co., Larry Thompson from PepsiCo, Brad Karp from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, and Deborah Rhode from Stanford Law—all of the participants engaged in lively, rigorous, and productive discussions of contemporary professionalism.

I say these discussions were the heart of the conference for several reasons. They got down to specifics; they ventilated the challenges; and they suggested actions that could make a difference.

More importantly, the discussions reflected how profoundly the concepts of professionalism mattered to the participants. As a participant myself, I was struck by the seriousness of purpose of everyone. This was not polite “parlor talk.” From general counsels, to law firm leaders, to association leaders, to academics, everyone saw these issues as vital to law being what it needs to be. They all recognized that professionalism has declined as a consequence of modern realities. They also recognized that restoring the desired levels of professionalism would require sustained collaboration among all stakeholders. And they all evinced a willingness to engage.

I found the day truly uplifting. Just the idea that this many leaders would travel to Cambridge and devote a day to the subject said something. But the spirit of the meetings said even more.

I believe that the Essay’s call to action will be heeded by leaders across the profession and business of law. I will do my part. I bet the other Harvard conference participants will do theirs. And I think it will be contagious. We shall see.