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“Professionalism” has rapidly become one of the “buzz words” of the new millennium. Both legal employers and law schools are focusing on teaching new lawyers (and some not so new) professionalism skills. But what does professionalism mean? The term covers so much ground and such broad subtopics. Take the 2007 NALP (The Association for Legal Career Professionals) conference titled “The Peak of Professionalism.” Topics include emotional intelligence, facilitating the successful transition for student to lawyer and staying professional in the electronic marketplace. Has professionalism become so broadly defined to be meaningless? Doesn’t it really boil down to the Golden Rule? Let’s start with the ethical dimension of professionalism. As law students learn in ethics classes, law is a profession, and lawyers are entrusted with the well-being of their clients to whom they owe a fiduciary duty. Lawyers are therefore held to a higher standard of ethical conduct than non-lawyers. They also are held to a higher standard of conduct because law is a self-regulating monopoly. The trust that clients place in their lawyers demands professional responsibility. Lawyers must avoid even “the appearance of impropriety.” Another central aspect of professionalism, “civility” governs (or should govern) the interactions between opposing counsel in court and in negotiations. Recent years have brought an epidemic of rudeness among attorneys in an atmosphere where winning at any cost rather than service has become the goal. The number of lawyer jokes attests to failure of the profession in terms of public perception. Related to the civility dimension, though less central, the etiquette component is in essence the rules governing professional interaction. More law schools are hosting etiquette dinners to prepare students for interview and client lunches. Students learn “liquids on the left and solids on the right.” They learn to deal with escaped vegetables or utensils and to forego the French onion soup and the spaghetti. Such meals, of course, are not about the food. Students learn about proper attire, how to deal with business cards and thank you notes. Recently, etiquette rules have been extended to electronic communication, including e-mail and cell phone usage. Techniques for networking — both for job searching and for client development — are stressed. Many lawyers are under the misapprehension that networking involves using other people to land a job. In reality networking is about creating a web of mutually beneficial professional relationships. The burgeoning field of professional development for lawyers, or continuing legal education (CLE), also has a professionalism as well as a career component. Law students need to make the transition from being in law school to being a lawyer, and lawyers must continue to hone skills to be marketable in today’s multi-job careers. Finally, and perhaps most central to professionalism is the obligation to provide service to those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Graduation speeches and state bar induction ceremonies abound with pleas for new lawyers to do pro bono work. The speeches look back nostalgically to a time when a lawyer assumed that his daily activities could (and should) impact the larger community. Lawyers, and not just lawyer-politicians, assumed that being a lawyer involved a civic duty component beyond service to the individual client. The speeches implore the fledgling lawyers to likewise get involved in their communities. With all these permutations of professionalism should we simply conclude that everything we do as lawyers and law students in some sense falls under “professionalism”? Perhaps “professionalism” may best be described as a lens through which the lawyer, the “professional,” can view others and be viewed holistically. Law is not just about winning the case, closing the deal, getting into the best law school, making law review or working for the most prestigious or highest paying law firm. It’s also about personal life balance and the lawyer’s relationship to the larger community. Perhaps, ironically, professionalism is about viewing lawyers as people first, rather than seeing them primarily as members of a profession. With the law’s inexorable and single-minded focus on objective analysis and principles, lawyers easily get fixated on their own success. They lose sight of the real key to success — the success of their relationships. Widespread complaints about lack of civility in professional relationships is indicative of how cheaply others are viewed and how self-absorbed we have become. The common thread of professionalism connects the highest ethical standards to being careful before hitting “Reply All” in an e-mail to, at the other end of the continuum, always passing both the salt and the pepper together. In other words, professionalism is about listening, sharing, helping, connecting, and serving. The question has been asked: Can one be both a good lawyer and a good person? Taking professionalism to heart, in all its various manifestations, can allow us to answer, emphatically, “yes.” William Chamberlain is assistant dean, law career strategy and advancement, Northwestern University School of Law.

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