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A zealous lawyer’s duties go beyond the client

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Zealous Attorneys

One of the first things law students are taught is that, as lawyers, they will be expected to “zealously represent” their clients. But what exactly does this mean?

Unfortunately, the imagery conjured by this turn of phrase only serves to perpetuate the pernicious notion—held by many non-lawyers—that lawyers will do anything it takes to win a case. Thus, while the sentiment behind the charge to zealously represent one’s clients is no doubt well-intentioned, I think it is long past time for lawyers to recast the manner in which they describe the nature of the attorney-client relationship. And any discussion along these lines should begin with the understanding that a lawyer has duties beyond those to his or her clients—i.e., to the bench, bar, community writ large, and the rule of law.

Indeed, the rules of professional conduct make this abundantly clear. But there is a compelling reason beyond mere ethical compliance for taking a more holistic (rather than mercenary) approach to one’s law practice: It makes for far better lawyering.

Spend a little time each week thinking about what it means to be a lawyer.

At the heart of a holistic approach to law practice is a recognition that the disputes we handle as lawyers are not about us. Ideally, lawyers are servants. Our clients come to us when they are vulnerable and in dire need of guidance. And the last thing a client needs is a lawyer who merely fans the flames of discord.

What a client does need is for someone to dispassionately analyze the situation and come up with a game plan for quickly resolving the dispute—i.e., a problem solver. Unfortunately, this approach is much more difficult to market to a person in the midst of emotional turmoil. Indeed, prospective clients will often express a desire for a “pitbull attorney” who will inflict pain and misery on their adversaries.

But that is not what a client needs, and a lawyer has an obligation to channel the client’s emotions in a constructive manner. This does not just promote the cause of professionalism, but also inures to the benefit of the client.

The reality is that many cases are won or lost due to the reputations of the attorneys involved, and a fanatical, win-at-any-cost lawyer is not doing the client’s cause any favors. It may warm a client’s heart to hear her attorney bluster on about how she has suffered a grave injustice, but if that rhetoric has no basis in the law or undermines a valid legal position, then it ultimately serves no purpose.

A good attorney knows this to be true. A good attorney recognizes that effectively representing a client begins and ends with zealously guarding her reputation and going above and beyond the baseline of ethical standards imposed by our profession.

So, my challenge to young lawyers is this: Spend a little time each week thinking about what it means to be a lawyer. Consider what an honor it is to serve our fellow citizens during their most challenging times. And remember that every time you file a pleading or brief (or make an appearance in court), you are either harming or building up your reputation.

It may sound trite, but the old adage really is true: Your most precious asset as a lawyer is your reputation. Treat it as such.

Judge Stephen Dillard Judge Stephen Louis A. Dillard is the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals of Georgia. Prior to his appointment, Judge Dillard spent 12 years in private practice and 2 years as a clerk to the Honorable Daniel A. Manion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.