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Government & Public Sector Lawyers Division

The Public Lawyer and the Legal System

Charles H. Dorsey, Jr.

Over the past two years, the legal system and the legal profession have been subjected to close scrutiny and great criticism. Former Vice President Quayle has had his say; Congress has required an advisory committee in every federal court district to examine ways of decreasing cost and delay in litigation; concerned groups have established committees to study the civil and criminal justice systems; the American Bar Association has held its "Just Solutions" conference. We lawyers worry about our image. We should worry about the reality.

I believe our system is as good as any devised by human beings and that the real problem lies with us, the lawyers and the judges of this nation. I believe that we have forgotten the real work of the practice of law—the struggle for justice.

For many of us, the law is merely a way to make a living, a source of personal power and prestige, only an "industry" as any other mercantile undertaking. For many judges, the goal is to keep the docket moving; to let the appellate courts deal with the mistakes—if the litigants can get there—rather than to take the time to get it right the first time.

Many of us have lost faith in the law. If we, lawyers and judges, have lost faith, none of us should be surprised that the person on the street has lost confidence in the law, its institutions, and in us. Too many of us and most of them believe the law is just a game. This loss of confidence was a constant theme reverberating through the ABA’s recent "Just Solutions" conference.

Lawyers, in my opinion, are the guardians of the ideals of our society. We are sworn to protect the Constitution and the laws of the United States and of our various states. We speak of truth and fairness and justice; of freedom, equality, and rights; of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—ideals of this society grounded in our basic documents. Through lawyers, these ideals are realized. When we fail, those ideals fail.

The public lawyer has a particular duty to guard and defend these ideals because we—as public lawyers—represent the people of the United States. Government lawyers exercise the power of the sovereign—ideally, consistent with the ideals and the high principles this nation and each state and our profession espouse. Public sector lawyers practice in organizations that seek to make equal justice available to even the most needy of our citizens, another of our ideals, and the public interest.

Public lawyers have the numbers and the power to reestablish the ideals of our system of justice, of our institutions, and of our society. We have the ability to bring civility and fairness back to the practice by refusing to engage in the "hardball" approach to representation. We can attempt to resolve disputes without litigation by initiating communications with opposing counsel before litigation. We can urge our clients to live within the law. We can insist on fairness in litigation and in negotiation.

We can bring nobility back to the practice of law. We can, by our actions, restate, revitalize, and strengthen those values for which so many Americans sacrificed and died.

There is no higher calling.

The author, Charles H. Dorsey, Jr., died in April 1995. He served with great distinction as Executive Director of Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau, Inc. since 1974. A long-time active member of the ABA and a number of professional, civic, and charitable organizations, Mr. Dorsey was Chair-Elect of the Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division at the time of his death.

This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared in The Public Lawyer, Summer 1995.

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