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The concept of professionalism: Where is the legal profession going?

Prepared by S.T. Khouw –

Today the figure of the lawyer no longer represents a professional ideal. There are of course lawyers that fit this type but the type itself does not command the profession. This type of model is rapidly declining and almost disappearing as a result of which the nobility, the dignity and identity of the legal profession have all declined.

Caught in a chaotic job market, with urges that place personal benefit and satisfaction at its forefront, we have somehow lost the connection with the true nature of this profession. We have separated ourselves from the core and meaning of its practice by stripping it from all the values that have shaped and build the legal profession in the first place.

Years ago, the legal profession was set apart from any other occupation because of the noble cause it represented, related to a noble mission to serve mankind with humanism. But in today’s picture, anybody with a law degree can call himself a lawyer. The meaning of the word professionalism keeps changing and lawyers are considered nothing more than service providers, all due to the misshaped nature of the profession.

Abandoning the values of the profession in pursuit of what?

As the members of the legal profession increasingly abandon the anchoring moral principles of justice, fairness, loyalty, and many others, in pursuit of the financial golden ring, they have not only become soulless creatures without any sense of professional belonging but also detached and decreased the nobility of their profession.

The problem however does not begin with the lawyer, but rather with the individual that is later shaped to become a professional. Our societies keep producing raw material from which lawyers are born and shaped into legal practitioners without any value or principle, without idealistic and missionary causes. In a society that has abandoned the highest values such as honour, service, dignity – it is unsurprising that such lawyers will be shaped and moulded to mirror the same characteristics back.

Many lawyers enter the law school with great objectives and a vision to change the world but when they complete their education they have almost forgotten or set aside their dreams and start competing for financial gain, fame and reputation. The truth is, a lawyer represents more than a practicing professional man, due to the nature of the profession he has chosen.

In practicing a noble profession, a lawyer is expected to go beyond the narrow limits of the law and comply with its spirit. Because a real professional is someone who not only applies certain skills and qualities to practice his profession daily, but someone who possesses full emotional, perceptual and intellectual capacities that are crucial for a good and sound judgment, for making the right decisions, and being able to stand up for important causes.

The (lost) intellectual and moral dimension of the legal profession

When we ask ourselves ‘who are we?’ as professionals we are in fact asking, ‘what is the nature of the profession that we occupy and practice?’ In answering this question, we as professionals must accept the fact that values and ideals are what shape and build such profession as a result of which they must be more important than skills and rules.

Once we understand this, we will easily accept the fact that a lawyer isn’t someone who only knows how to apply the law, read the constitutional codes by heart and tell the client what to do. He needs to have an emotional intelligence according to which he can understand, feel and acknowledge the real nature and the gravity of the issues he is involved in. As a result, he must act not just by law but also by conscience because a lawyer is not just a professional. He is in the fullest meaning a learned person, a civic leader and a helping person.

Of course, rules and skills in performing our daily tasks are important because they provide minimum standards that reinforce our behaviour from a professional perspective. But legal career is not about merely complying and obeying rules and procedures. It’s about cultivating ideals and virtues that make us great professionals and correspond to the oath we take at the beginning of our careers.

The legal profession involves an intellectual dimension including all rules and procedures we need to comply with that enables us to know what to do and how to do it. But there is another one – the moral dimension which includes values and ideals and enables us to know whether the action is right or wrong. As a result, the legal practice remains a profession that occupies and engages the entire person and not just one side of the human behaviour.

An integrative force in a world of disintegrating powers

Lawyers have a great responsibility to regulate and balance the way entire communities behave and function. Unfortunately, not many lawyers achieve that goal. The pressure of gaining more, becoming more and accomplishing more in a world of disintegrating powers is high. As a result, most lawyers end up caught in an internal fight between what matters the most and what is needed the most.

The dilemma between the values of the profession and the economic dominance is what lawyers mostly struggle with today. But the problem begins the moment we think we need to make a choice between financial well – being and purposeful professional existence. Because of this false perception that the pursuit of money should dominate, our profession is turning to be a random occupation and the law has become a business like any other. That leaves lawyers with the only option: To struggle against their fate or accept it with the price of completely losing their identity.

However, if we see our profession more than just an occupation than we know becoming a lawyer entails a duty to do two things. First, to serve our society and community in a way that things places their interest first, and second to serve in a way that gives us a satisfaction beyond the financial gain or pleasure of fame. We must find internal pleasure and fulfilment within ourselves about what we do every day because when we see our profession as a more than a set of rules and procedures, we acknowledge it as a calling.

That is when we go beyond the ‘letter of the law’ and we comply with the spirit of this profession. And once we act, think, believe in line with it, we turn our profession into a lifestyle. We being to serve a bigger cause than ourselves, our salaries, and our careers. That is the true meaning of the existence for a unique and noble profession.

S. T. Khouw is a lawyer and the founder of European Legal Research & Training Network, an organization dedicated and serving to lawyers’ integration from The Western Balkan Countries. She is also the founder of the Balkan Lawyer Magazine, a coach, motivational speaker and writer.