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Be an independent lawyer

Special to the News Columns

Upholding independent thinking and ethical responsibilities not only protects lawyers' professional reputation but also ensures the integrity of the legal system as a whole

Jim Vickaryous

Jim Vickaryous

A lawyer looks at a jury and takes a deep breath. He is going to finish his closing argument in a mass murder trial: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence: nor is the law less stable than the fact; if an assault was made to endanger their lives, the law is clear, they had a right to kill in their own defense.” The lawyer and his clients are worried during deliberations. After all, the eight are accused of killing five people. A city rioted because of what they did. The jury comes back with a verdict of not guilty for six of the lawyer’s clients, and manslaughter for the remaining two.   

 On that frigid afternoon in Boston, December 4, 1770, the scene unfolded. John Adams, a diminutive figure, directs his gaze toward his clients, garbed in the distinctive crimson coats symbolizing their service to the British Empire. As he shifts his attention to the courtroom gallery, he confronts the seething countenances of the numerous Sons of Liberty and the grieving families of those whose lives his clients extinguished. Within him, an apprehensive unease grows, anticipating the conversation that awaits him with his cousin, Sam Adams, the brewer and revered founder of the Sons of Liberty, an organization often credited with igniting the flames of the American Revolutionary War. John Adams already knows precisely what he will say, “I have a duty to uphold the law, whatever the consequences.”   

 As can be seen from the professional life of America’s second president, a lawyer’s duty of independence long pre-dates our country’s independence. This duty long pre-dated the adoption of the American Bar Association’s codification of a lawyer’s duties in its Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Florida requires a lawyer to exercise independent professional judgment:  A lawyer shall not permit a person who recommends, employs, or pays the lawyer to render legal services for another to direct or regulate the lawyer’s professional judgment in rendering such legal services (R. Regul. FL. Bar 4-5.4(d)). 

 Exercising independent professional judgment can be an arduous task, especially in the face of dissenting opinions from all sides. It can be tempting to succumb to the influence of the majority, to be swayed by the prevailing sentiment. However, for those aspiring to become exceptional lawyers, the unwavering commitment to the duty of independent professional judgment becomes paramount. It is an obligation that demands daily implementation.   

The independent lawyer is a legal professional who embodies autonomy and critical thinking within the legal profession. They possess the ability to think independently, critically analyze complex legal issues, and make well-informed conclusions. Independent lawyers understand the importance of independent thought and giving great advice to clients. They prioritize thinking independently and exercising professional judgment, ensuring their advice is objective and based on legal expertise rather than being influenced by clients’ desires. Courage and integrity are essential qualities for independent lawyers, as they provide advice that may be unpopular but legally and ethically sound. While navigating potential risks and costs associated with independence, such as client disagreement or job security concerns, they remain committed to professional integrity.   

 It is impossible to serve two masters well. This concept is incorporated into the practice of law. The concept of professional independence is no exception. If you share a fee with a non-lawyer, it deleteriously affects your independent judgment. There has been much debate over the past decade over whether lawyers should be allowed to join forces with non-lawyers in providing legal services to clients. Even if there are some arguments for efficiency to do so, it would be a poison pill. Often times, the best independent legal judgment is inefficient. And purposefully so – great legal work often requires taking the time to pause, reflect, and formulate excellent guidance. Indeed, our very own Florida Supreme Court’s official seal adopts the motto Sat Cito Si Recte. Translated from Latin it means, “Soon enough if correct.” Interestingly enough, you have to walk across the motto in order to enter the Florida Supreme Court’s courtroom.   

Independent thought is vital for a lawyer’s ability to serve clients effectively. Lawyers must possess the capacity to critically analyze legal issues, considering multiple perspectives and relevant factors. By engaging in independent thought, lawyers can provide comprehensive and well-rounded advice. Independent thinking allows them to identify potential pitfalls, anticipate challenges, and offer innovative solutions that may not be apparent otherwise. Ultimately, independent thought empowers lawyers to navigate complex legal landscapes with confidence and competence.   

Independence comes with costs, as independent lawyers often encounter professional risks. Instances may arise where clients disagree with or reject independent advice, leading to negative outcomes. However, maintaining professional integrity is crucial, even in the face of losing clients or job security. Upholding independent thinking and ethical responsibilities not only protects lawyers’ professional reputation but also ensures the integrity of the legal system as a whole. Lawyers that work for only one client may have the most difficult time when it comes to giving independent advice. They might lose their job in maintaining their independence.   

Striking a balance between maintaining independence and respecting clients’ autonomy is a delicate yet essential task for independent lawyers. While offering independent advice is crucial, lawyers must also consider clients’ perspectives and preferences. Effective communication plays a vital role in presenting advice that resonates with clients. Building strong relationships based on trust and mutual understanding enables lawyers to navigate this fine line, ensuring that independent thought is valued and integrated into the decision-making process.   

Embrace the valor that comes with being an independent lawyer, for you stand in esteemed company. Let us take pride in the fact that on July 4, 1776, our nation’s Declaration of Independence bore the signatures of 25 lawyers among its 56 signers. Furthermore, four out of the five drafters of this momentous document were lawyers themselves. It is noteworthy that the lawyer who successfully defended six out of the eight Red Coats also played a significant role in both drafting and signing the Declaration of Independence.   

 By championing independent thinking, lawyers leave an indelible mark on the legal landscape, upholding the principles of justice and integrity that define the legal profession, and indeed, freedom. Let us celebrate our independence of thought, and let’s all resolve to be independent 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. 

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