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A different definition of ‘professionalism’

“Professionalism” is an overused buzz word in the legal world. People toss it around so casually that I’m not really sure what it means anymore. We all attended the Maryland State Bar Association’s required professionalism course after passing the Bar. Presenters at Bar association CLEs and luncheons often discuss professionalism in lofty tones. I recall law professors speaking about our noble obligations to “the profession.” Used in this way, “professionalism” can be summed up thusly: don’t be a jerk or a fraud, cooperate with opposing counsel and embrace the Rules of Professional Conduct. But my understanding of professionalism is broader than that.

At the core of professionalism is that notion that we, as lawyers, are not just employees of a business carrying out company policy. We are individuals with our own reputations, relationships, and responsibilities — even if we are “subordinate lawyers,” as described in Rule 5.2. We are not merely clock-punchers. We exist to serve clients. Most of us don’t intend to be subordinate lawyers forever. We want more responsibility. We want our own clients, our own cases. We want to call the shots. So how do we get there?

Follow the advice in Brian Tannebaum’s new book The Practice: Brutal Truths About Lawyers and Lawyering, recently published by the American Bar Association. Tannebaum is a Miami criminal defense lawyer who has written for years on building a practice. If you’re like Tannebaum (and me), and have what some call a “retail law practice” — in other words, you represent actual breathing humans instead of corporations — then you need to hear what he has to say about developing your practice.

Tannebaum preaches the value of building relationships with the bar and with the rest of the community. This is critical. No, you can’t build a career just by writing awesome blog posts and then tweeting about them. You’ve got to become an effective lawyer who is engaged with the Bar and the community. Having an online presence is important but it is no substitute for building relationships with people in the flesh.

That, to me, is professionalism. Lawyers exist primarily to serve clients, and all of our professional obligations must be viewed through that lens. Professionals serve their clients and their colleagues. Professionals build a network and serve that network — by representing clients, surely, but also by connecting members of the community with other professionals who can meet their needs. Service, rather than maximizing their net worth, is their priority. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make a lot of money, but that should not be your only motivation.

Sometimes the right book comes along at the right time. The Practice is one of those books for me. I am terribly introverted. I am not a joiner, and I’m not very good at mingling. I have basically failed at implementing Tannebaum’s best practices and I don’t measure up well to my own standard of professionalism. Intellectually, I recognize the value. Personally, I have a hard time doing it. I’ve been a member of the Bar for over four years, and I’ve done a lousy job of getting involved with the various bar groups to which I belong. That is why most of you reading this had no idea who I was before I started writing for Generation J.D.

The older I get, the more I understand the importance of making a concerted effort to build relationships and get involved, and the more I realize the consequences of not getting involved. So I encourage my fellow young lawyers to follow Tannebaum’s example, not mine. Get involved. (And feel free to nag me to do the same!)

Remember, you’re not just an employee. You’re a lawyer. You serve clients. You may draw a paycheck from a law firm, but you need to build your own practice. Whether you remain an employee of someone else’s law firm forever or you start your own firm, you will eventually need to find and serve clients on your own. That starts today.

Read The Practice.

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