Category Archives: Spiritual

Reflections on the Purpose of Law

San Francisco Attorney magazine, Winter 2003


I have been practicing law for thirty-five years, and I remain proud to be a lawyer in the United States.

As I have written elsewhere[1], the American legal profession and its most accomplished members have been among the most civilizing and progressive forces in history. American lawyers, going back at least to Thomas Jefferson, have helped to provide others with a better life through their vigorous defense of individual human rights, their political acumen—more than two-thirds of our presidents during the first 150 years of our nation’s history were lawyers—and by the contributions lawyers have made to the world’s economic and social development.

It is great to be a member of a profession whose very existence is designed to elevate human conflict from the brutish to the civilized, as Aeschylus’s mythic trilogy, The Oresteja, depicts in its transformation of blood vendetta to the reasoned discipline and restraint of trial by jury. The exercise of reason in human affairs is the most reliable means for bringing of stability and justice out of the chaos of human competition and conflict. “The life of the law,” as John Locke wrote, “is reason.”

Understanding the essential purpose of the legal profession is gratifying. Even greater gratification may come from helping clients resolve their problems, not only through the occasional trial of a case but, more often, through humanistic counseling and skilled negotiation. I spent the first two-thirds of my legal career in the federal government, with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission. There are, of course, satisfactions a lawyer enjoys from the practice of public law. These are derived mainly from being a position to help implement beneficial public policy. The satisfactions of advancing a good government policy, however, are rather abstract; one rarely sees how government work actually affects individuals. They are, therefore, generally less than the satisfactions private practitioners can enjoy from seeing their work make concrete, positive differences in the lives of the men, women, and—at least in effect— children that come to them for help, as well as from contributions they make to the well-being of their business clients’ enterprises. These greater satisfactions are compounded for me as a solo practitioner and independent businessman with the luxury of choosing my clients and regulating my own calendar.

When you run your own business, there are also things that come with the territory that are not-so-great. There is constant worry about the bottom line, from which you are, of course, exempt if you are a salaried employee. There can be nerve-wracking uncertainties about the ultimate outcome of a case in which you have invested much thought and labor, because of difficult facts or conflicting rules of law, or the discretion vested in judges. There is the occasional deadbeat client, sometimes one for whom you have worked above and beyond the call of duty. And, of course, the lost case or the case that, for one reason or another, prudence requires you to settle on terms that seem to you unfair.

These are perils of practicing law, but they are not nearly as disappointing or frustrating as the commonly disappointing character of prevalent American legal practice itself, and the concomitant erosion of civility in relationships between opposing counsel.

The general character of American legal practice has changed much for the worse during the past thirty-five years. I believe this has been chiefly a result of three developments: (1) the great growth in large firm legal practice; (2) the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona (removing restrictions on lawyer advertising); and (3) the degraded image of the legal profession due to the misbehavior of so many lawyers (including the U.S Attorney General in the Watergate scandal). These developments have caused the dominant ethos of American legal practice to become more that of business enterprise than of a learned, humanistic profession. A dozen or so books by distinguished attorneys and scholars published in the 1990s document and lament this trend.2 The pressing necessities of “the billable hour,” the loss of the mentoring system in law firms, and a common collective loss of memory of the true roots of the American legal profession in history—the common law and the Unites States Constitution—have led to a common ethos in legal practice encouraging the “gun-for¬hire,” “Ambulating,” and “take-no-prisoners” mentalities that have widely corrupted the professional behavior of lawyers. Experiencing this corruption can sometimes make the practice of law an unpleasant experience.

Lawyers who do not take their constitutional oaths as seriously as they should—that is, who do nor make the pursuit of justice a paramount concern in the exercise of their calling3—are also likely to ignore the spirit of reason and civility that defines the essential character of the law. Having to deal with such lawyers is the worst thing about being one. The uncivil lawyer is well-armed with self-serving, self-interested excuses for his or her behavior:

“I’m only doing what my client wants me to do,” or “I’d prefer to be civil, but I have to deal in kind with all those other uncivil lawyers to protect my clients’ interests.”

These excuses—half-truths at best—generally mask the abrogation of a lawyer’s professional responsibilities as counselor and peacemaker, and often amount, in my opinion, to chosen Incompetence. As Elihu Root, the great New York civil lawyer and Secretary of State under President Theodore Roosevelt, said, “About half the practice of any decent lawyer consists of telling would-be clients that they’re damned fools, and should stop.” In contrast to the ubiquity of these public excuses and rationalizations for uncivil behavior in legal practice, I have never met any lawyer—including self-professed “Rambos”— who does not admit, at least in private, that if he or she and opposing counsel had dealt with each other with discreet candor and civility, and counseled their clients skillfully and with reason, many of their most difficult cases could have been settled in a small fraction of the time it took to resolve them through the costly, stressful, and often unnecessary procedures of formal discovery and litigation.

The contradiction between this practically self-evident and almost universally understood truth and the typical behavior of practicing lawyers today is the least-great thing about being a lawyer. As an incorrigible optimist, however, I see some possible antidote to this situation in the growth of mediation and in the recognition of its economies by corporate America. Now, if our law schools could also evolve to address the critical need to educate students as better negotiators and problem-solvers and de-emphasize the lawyer’s role as warrior, I could more confidently predict that the next generation of lawyers would be less likely to complain about what is not-so-great about being a member of our profession. I would add, more than by the way, that, given America’s present place in the world, a return to great civility in the practice of our profession could make an important contribution to world peace.[4]

1. “Cashing in On Conflict,” The Washington Post, June 5, 1996; “The Triumphs of Law and Lawyers in the United States,” The Hellenic Journal, June 16,1995.
2. See e.g., the citations in Sheppard, “American Principles & The Evolving Ethos of American Legal Practice,” 28 Loyola University Chicago Law Journal 237, 246, note 19 and passim, Winter 1996.
3.See, e.g., Sheppard, “Legal Education and the Future of the Republic,” a talk to the Yale Law Club of San Francisco, published in Vital Speeches of the Day, April 5, 1998.
4. See, e.g., Sheppard, “A Lawyer’s Christmas Message,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 25, 1997.