Academia, Leadership

How Do We Distinguish Ethics, Professionalism and Leadership?

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 By Leah Teague 

As we work to establish leadership development as a recognized academic pursuit in legal education, we are met with questions of definition, distinction and purpose. An often-asked question, even among us who are pursuing the study of leadership in the context of the legal profession, is what is the difference between professional responsibility, professionalism (also referred to as professional identity, formation or development) and leadership. This is a start. I have no doubt my thoughts will continue to take shape as we continue conversations and work.

Ethics/Professional Responsibility

As lawyers we must abide by a code of professional responsibility. The outer boundaries of unactionable conduct is set by principles established in the code. Law students learn these rules as minimums – that which they MUST do or not do to avoid scrutiny for a violation and to avoid an appearance of impropriety. Students are tested on these rules. Law firms have committees that consider ethical issues and make decisions for their lawyers. Bar associations have committees for reviewing rules, advising lawyers and taking action when lawyers step outside the boundaries. Self-regulation of lawyers’ conduct is essential to maintaining our independence and our privileged status with powers and opportunities.

But as we often discuss in law school, or at least we should, the code of professional responsibility will not determine who you are as a lawyer, what type of cases or clients you will represent, how you will practice law, or how you will be remembered.

Professional Development/Professionalism/ Formation/ Identity

What does it mean to be a member of a profession that has a rich history of status and privilege earned by rigorous intellectual pursuit and legal training?  Here are some of the questions raised as we try to define our professional identity and to better prepare our students to enter the profession that has long been considered a noble pursuit, but also a profession that is perhaps less favored and respected in recent decades:

  • Who are we as lawyers?
  • What is our role in society?
  • What does the public expect of us?

And on an individual basis, we ask our students to consider what kind of lawyer they want to be.

With our legal training & law degree we have an obligation to serve our clients and society.  From the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Preamble: A Lawyer’s Responsibilities, “[a] lawyer is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”

As Alexis de Tocqueville recognized in the 1830s, the role of lawyers as keepers of the rule of law and the special training of lawyers as problem solvers and advocates ensured for us “a separate station in society.” When he labeled lawyers as the “American Aristocracy,” he used that title in the European tradition from which he came – where lords were responsible for their charges. The privilege of wealth and power carried with it a privileged duty to protect. For American lawyers, our charge is our democracy.  Our special status arose because lawyers were viewed as more than mere providers of legal services. We have an obligation to serve not only our clients but also society.

As lawyers, more is expected of us by the public. And by that I mean, with the acquisition of our privilege – law degree and legal training – the public has an expectation of us that obligates us to live up to a higher set of principles and standards than a citizen who is not a member of our profession.

As I tell our students during orientation, the Latin root of profession is professieum – to make a public declaration or to take an oath. When I ask them to name the three vocations considered to be the original “professions,” it does not take them long to name “doctors, lawyers and clergy.” We then discuss what common attributes these three share. Answers include “education and training;” “expectation to live an exemplary live” or at least “higher expectations;” “less forgiveness for human error;” and this is one of my favorites, “doctors take care of the body, clergy minister to the soul, and lawyers take care of live in a community – rights, liberties and property interests.”  What becomes clear to them through the discussion is that our privilege comes with expectations and obligations to conduct ourselves in a manner befitting of our noble profession, which includes service.     

Leadership

Leadership development should go beyond a focus on defining lawyers’ behavior and actions in terms of expectation and obligation to serve clients and communities. Lawyers have the opportunity to guide and influence clients and serve in their communities. Lawyers are leaders and as such that is part of our professional identity. Yet leadership development requires a different type of attention and training than professional development. Leadership development should start with professional development, i.e. self-awareness and self-assessment – the “who am I as a lawyer?” But then we must move to looking at the opportunities we have as lawyers to have a positive influence and impact on society.

Throughout history, lawyers have played a critical role in shaping stable, peaceful and prosperous societies. Leadership seeks to develop lawyers who not only have mastery of self but also are inspired to make a difference. Our legal training, our law license and professional status afford us daily opportunities to influence individuals, behaviors, transactions, organizations, communities and society. Now more than ever, we need lawyers to recognize not only our obligation to serve society, but also opportunities afforded to us because of our professional status and education and then to use our position and training to make a positive difference in the lives of their clients and communities.  We, as the teachers, coaches and mentors to the next generations of lawyers, need to do a better job of equipping them and inspiring them to rise up and seek those opportunities to positively impact society.

-LT