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  • April 28, 2022

    Senior Lawyers: Are We Really Ruining the Profession?

    Senior lawyers are accused of ruining the profession despite the professionalism, dedication, and integrity we bring to the legal system. Steven Sorenson discusses the accusation, saying that while some may find such values old fashioned, they are crucial to the integrity of our profession. "As mentors to the younger generations of lawyers, it is our duty to uphold these values and pass them on," he writes.

    Steven R. Sorenson

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    I recently read a disturbing piece titled “Dear Senior Lawyers – You're Ruining the Profession.” Apparently our ways of treating people, conducting ourselves in court or dealing with our fellow lawyers is so outdated that we are destroying the vitality of the legal system.

    As senior lawyers, we have apparently lost sight of the needs of new lawyers and younger associates by our antiquated attitudes about the profession and our need to place commitment to the profession above self-interest.

    Perhaps the example we may set by dressing as a professional when at work, by always showing deference to the court, by being polite to the court personnel, by being respectful when we contact opposing counsel, and by being patient with less-than-cooperative clients is not an admired quality or even a necessity in today’s legal field.

    These behaviors however mark the careers of many senior lawyers.

    Steve Sorenson headshot Steve Sorenson, Marquette 1977, is a shareholder with vonBriesen & Roper, S.C., in Fox Valley, where he serves as an ethics counsel and practices in the areas of municipal law, business organizations and real estate law.

    Should we as senior lawyers abandon our view of professionalism in favor of the new and improved lawyer lifestyle?

    Being professional is implicit in being a lawyer. There is an expectation, in and out of the profession, that a lawyer is a professional. We are the stewards of the legal profession. We are the guardians of professionalism. We are the mentors. We are the examples, just as those who came before us set the bar high for us.

    Despite what some may believe, the practice of law is still a “profession which demands professionalism.” Keep in mind that professionalism is not just about appearance, ethics, and a code of conduct.

    Professionalism is about having a lifetime of dedication and commitment to higher standards and ideals, honorable values, others above self and continuous self-improvement. Professionalism is a built-in guidance system for always doing the best that we can do, always doing the right thing, and always standing up for what we believe.

    Our professional behavior evolves not just from our legal training, but from life experiences, family upbringing, education, religious beliefs, societal influences, organized bar involvement, professional programs, helping of peers, leadership experiences, professional associations and a fundamental system of values.

    Professionalism was essential to our very existence. In law school, shirts, ties, pant suits, sport coats, and dresses were a regular sight. Professors were professionals in professional attire demanding professional respect. Civility and respect was demanded and also earned by those who sought to succeed.

    Keep in mind that as lawyers, we have agreed to follow hundreds of rules of professional behavior. We have signed an oath that demands civility and respect. We have added our names to a multitude of affidavits, and notarized thousands of documents.

    Professionalism, with its commitment to civility and respect, is the hallmark of an enlightened and effective system of justice. As lawyers, we operate in three different platforms that intersect at times.

    • First, lawyers represent clients and have a clearly defined duty to those clients.

    • Second, lawyers owe a duty to the preservation, implementation and improvement of the legal system.

    • Third, lawyers must concern themselves with earning sufficient funds to meet the needs and expectations of themselves and their families.

    Professionalism follows us into each of those camps.

    The problem occurs when the balance is lost between our responsibilities and our commitment to professionalism. If we believe that our representation of clients means an unbridled zealousness that has no boundaries of civility and respect, we compromise the very essence of professionalism.

    If we measure success as an attorney by personal wealth and possessions rather than the preservation and protection of the Rule of Law, we let business decisions interfere with our duty to provide legal services, and we compromise the essence of our “Attorney’s Oath.”

    Senior lawyers throughout the country are cited for their commitment to integrity; trustworthiness; courteousness; respectfulness; honesty; fairness; and efficiency in resolving matters for clients; “my word is my bond;” commitment to the public good; competence; civility; service to clients, community and profession; candor; good judgment; undivided loyalty to clients; confidentiality; thoroughness; communication; good faith; avoiding even the appearance of impropriety; providing education to the public; support of and service to the profession; pro bono service; upholding the honor of the profession; respect for our judicial system; punctuality; exercise of independent judgment; and providing leadership to community and the organized bar.

    It is through their continuing examples and their leadership in the organized bar that opportunities exist to improve and enhance the profession and to develop collegiality. But it is this collegiality and this commitment to the practice that engenders comments about senior lawyers being out of touch and ruining many of our firms. It is this reverence to civility and the past practices of collegiality that leads to firm policies discharging lawyers at a certain age.

    Yes, it is true that senior lawyers may be old fashioned in the way they approach the practice. They may still put collegiality ahead of notching wins on their belts of success; they may practice law in a way that is less about business and more of a profession; but is that so wrong?

    If we as senior lawyers would rather pick up the phone and call another attorney rather versus sending a text message or email, if we would rather worry about clients as persons rather than as a source of income, I think that is still OK.

    To be an “old fashioned professional” who gets dressed up for work, who arrives on time even if there is no client waiting, who takes time to go to the courthouse to talk to judges and staff in person, and who asks the lawyer on the other side how his or her family is doing before going into court, it is just fine by me. We may be a bit out of touch with the rapid world of texting, we may not have our own Twitter or Instagram account, but we still seem to communicate in a meaningful way.

    I am proud to be a professional. I don’t think we as senior lawyers are ruining the practice of law. I think we are still setting a pretty good example. Our mentors, the senior lawyers who came before us, would be proud.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin Senior Lawyers Division Blog of Experience. Visit the State Bar Divisions page or the Senior Lawyers Division webpage to learn more about division membership.

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    Senior Lawyers Division Blog is published by the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Michael May and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Senior Lawyers Division or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2024 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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