Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, We Are the Greatest of Them All: The Ideal and Challenge of Humility in the Legal Profession

Author: Karla Carranza Guest Blogger

It is no secret that a career in law is generally viewed as prestigious, elite and attracting high status in Canadian society. Those in law are often typified as strong, intelligent individuals and leaders. Multiple factors may influence such perceptions: from the long schooling required to be a lawyer; the various examinations aspiring lawyers must pass; historical notions of law as a noble profession; to TV depictions of busy, wealthy lawyers; and media coverage of high profile cases.

Not surprisingly, many students-at-law and lawyers alike learn to feel proud of their role and the prestige that comes with it. In fact, the legal profession has largely influenced and benefited from its perception of prestige through promoting certain standards and ideals of professionalism. Unfortunately, the promotion of these ideals has left a crucial quality to the legal profession on the backburner: humility.

The Chief Justice of Ontario Advisory Committee on Professionalism (CJOACP) listed the building blocks of professionalism as scholarship, integrity, honour, leadership, pride, independence, spirit, collegiality, service and balanced commercialism. Honour and leadership were tied to maintaining the public’s respected image of the legal profession. Framing the duties in this way, rather than focusing on their importance to clients and communities, reinforces the standing of lawyers in society. It perpetuates a grandiose and esteemed bubble around the legal profession. An emphasis on pride further solidifies lawyers’ “high” status by encouraging lawyers to feel proud of their contributions in light of their skill and deemed respect.

I found the element of pride and recurring theme of maintaining the image of the profession particularly unsettling. In a society in which a law career is highly idealized, is it necessary to urge lawyers to be conscious of their importance? Should this be a constituent of what it means to act professionally? I suggest that instead of promoting pride in lawyers’ accomplishments, we promote humility or self-awareness of one’s privileged (not prestigious) position.

According to Dictionary.com and Merriam Webster, humility means having a modest opinion of one’s importance or rank, and not thinking you are better than other people. In addition, I think humility encompasses valuing others’ opinions and appreciating one’s weaknesses. Humility should not be confused with being timid or lacking self-confidence. A lawyer can be confident in their knowledge and skills while understanding this does not elevate them over the clients they serve. Due to lawyers’ perceived prestige and status in society, this is a crucial quality for lawyers to have and should be encouraged in lawyers’ work and conduct.

In fact, although the Codes of Conduct do not list humility as a rule or model of professional conduct, it underlies many of its elements. The duty of competence rests on humility, as it requires recognizing limitations in one’s ability to handle a matter and taking steps to ensure the client is appropriately served. Duties of advocacy, courtesy, and quality of service also intersect with humility inasmuch as they compel courteous and thorough service to clients. I would argue that courteous service and honourable representation involve listening and appreciating clients’ perspectives- aspects important to humility.

Why is there little discussion of humility as an element of professional conduct? On the surface, humility may seem to be in opposition to some of the goals of the legal profession. Humility rests on the belief that one is not better than others, yet lawyers are consistently taught to think of themselves as special due to their knowledge and abilities.

As the legal profession depends on a high level of respect in order to instill trust and confidence in the administration of justice, it benefits from a bubble of prestige and pride. The law profession is rife with examples that separate and elevates lawyers from the rest of the community: from lawyers’ special wardrobe in court to the formal and technical language of law. Furthermore, through concepts like professionalism, lawyers are told to embrace these differences. With these messages, it may come easy to believe in one’s importance and high status.

Fortunately, it is possible to promote humility in the legal profession without sacrificing the reputation and image of the legal profession, necessary for trust and confidence in the administration of justice. Professionalism can promote an awareness of lawyers’ unique ethical obligations and duties without going overboard with concepts such as pride and consciousness of one’s accomplishments. Instead of pride, professionalism can highlight an awareness of lawyers’ privileged position in society and power imbalances that exist with clients.

Many rules of professional conduct already hinge on humility and an appreciation of one’s weaknesses, thus stating the importance of humility would merely legitimize this underlying message. In an occupation that is already so heavily imbued with pride and a high image of itself, lawyers do not need a reminder of their importance.

In order to serve clients with dignity, integrity and competence, lawyers must understand that they are no better than the clients they are serving. As a law student soon entering the legal profession, I would prefer to be reminded of this element rather than pride. As Stephen Wexler once said, “He must realize that what makes him a lawyer are accidents of birth and interest, and those accidents have not made him something special; they have only given him the opportunity to help someone else”.[1]

Karla Carranza is finishing her last year in the English Common Law program at the University of Ottawa. She is eager to graduate and work with the community in family law. Her experiences as a law student inspired her to write this piece for Adam Dodek’s course in Professional Responsibility.

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[1] Stephen Wexler, “Practicing Law for Poor People” (1970) 79: 5 Yale LJ 1049 at 1063, online: http://www.jstor.org/stable/795211.

Comments

  1. Great piece, Ms Carranza. As an articling student myself, I frequently encounter how much pride governs reactions, decisions, and treatment of others. This reminds me of Jordan Furlong’s “lawyer exceptionalism”.
    I don’t often see or exhibit humility, much to the disappointment of my family and myself. Those that do exhibit humility or self-deprecating humour are thought to be lesser lawyers. Part of this is keeping up your levels of confidence “fake it ’til you make it” – but you can also risk getting out of touch with your friends and family. Who wants to be [real] friends with a pompous lawyer? We can all be reminded to “check yourself”, to stop thinking we are better than others.
    Thank you.

  2. Thank you for this excellent piece, Karla. I agree with your perspective, which I have long shared but never seen expressed before – at least not as eloquently as this. All the best as you embark on your legal career.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Karla. Some lawyers and firms believe that the more (and the more loudly) they boast about their accomplishments, the better their reputation will be. Focusing on quality work, integrity in all aspects of practice and delivering value to clients will always result in a better reputation. There is room for humility in the profession, but unfortunately, it isn’t what seems to garner third-party recognition these days (media coverage, rankings, etc). Lawyers and firms will need to find a balance between being true to themselves and meeting market needs as the profession and public expectations of it evolve.

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