Be a Privileged Lawyer
A happy client gave me a hug, thanked me for years of hard work and a successful end to her case. I was humbled by such a heartfelt compliment. I told her, “Thank you Ma’am, it was my privilege to represent you.” It was indeed my privilege to represent her. After all, we couldn’t be lawyers without clients.
These days, it’s not considered a good thing to be privileged. American culture has always had an antipathy towards unearned privilege. We overthrew a king and created a republic. But could being privileged be a good thing, if it’s earned and used to help others? I think it can.
Being a lawyer is an earned privilege. Don’t believe me? Check out what the Florida Supreme Court says in the Preamble to the Rules of Regulating the Florida Bar, Rules of Discipline, Rule 3-1.1 – Privilege to Practice: A license to practice law confers no vested right to the holder thereof but is a conditional privilege that is revocable for cause.
The “revocable for cause” language used by the Florida Supreme Court is sure to catch every lawyer’s eye. It accentuates that being a lawyer is one of our legal system’s great privileges. It is not a vested right, nor should we treat practicing law as our right. Just because you are a lawyer today, doesn’t mean you will be one tomorrow.
So, just what is the privilege earned upon becoming a lawyer? Trust. Trust of the courts that the lawyer will be a truthful officer of the court. Trust of clients that a lawyer will put the client’s interests before their own. Trust by society that a lawyer will defend and support our constitution. When others trust you, a great privilege has been conferred on you. A client trusting a lawyer with their family, business, freedom, even their lives, confers the highest privilege. Therefore, the real privilege of being a lawyer is trust.
The great privilege of practicing law provides for deep confidences between clients and their lawyers. After decades of practicing law, I am still amazed at what I hear. Some clients simply need to get a burden off their chest. They need to share their secret with someone, and they know we are duty-bound to keep their confidence. Things a person will not tell their spouse, their confessor, their closest friend, their doctor, they will often tell their lawyer. This high level of trust is given a name, interestingly enough, the attorney-client privilege.
The trust that makes practicing law a privilege is the pinnacle of being a lawyer. Always endeavor to keep and reinforce that trust. This trust can be lost rather quickly and in many ways. There are many ethics rules that outline every conceivable way that a lawyer can breach the trust of the court, a client, or society at large. It should suffice to say the ethics rules are the bare minimum for which the Florida Supreme Court will revoke your privilege to practice law. But for most lawyers, it is not the bare minimum which inspires us. We aspire to the highest levels of trust with our clients. The best guiding principle for keeping another’s trust is to keep their interests before yours. Putting others before yourself can feel unusual, but because it is so rare, you will gain lifelong clients by making this your consistent practice.
The earned privilege of being a lawyer allows a lawyer’s very thoughts and private notes made in furtherance of a client’s representation to be privileged. Indeed, this work-product privilege gives a lawyer a competitive advantage to all other professions. A lawyer does not have to disclose his strategy to best represent a client.
The privilege of being a lawyer requires constant sharpening of the saw, so to speak. As we age in the practice, so does the law. The law keeps changing, and we must keep learning. To keep earning the trust of our clients, we must maintain our knowledge and skills by regularly attending continuing legal education programs and staying up to date with the latest laws and regulations related to our practice area. Our clients like to look at a battered and well-used briefcase, but not so much a battered and dated legal mind. They want a cutting-edge lawyer that keeps up with the times and the law.
Aspiring to do our best for our clients, the courts, and our communities is what the privilege of being a lawyer is all about. Those around us look to us to be leaders, and we are privileged to have their trust. Let’s keep earning it, day-by-day. I’ve been truly privileged to be a Florida lawyer. Let’s all resolve to be privileged lawyers.
Jim Vickaryous is the managing partner of the Vickaryous Law Firm in Lake Mary and represents the 18th Circuit on The Florida Bar Board of Governors.