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Vol. 29, No. 3

First, do no harm

by Allan Head

[This is the eighth article in a three-year series focusing on the leadership of lawyers—things bar leaders ought to know and think about.]

"First, do no harm." I wasn’t sure I had heard it right, but sure enough, that was what he said, to 107 newly licensed lawyers as he administered the oath. "First, do no harm" seemed to me to be a no-brainer. Surely, we did not need to tell brand-new lawyers to "do no harm." I expected we would be challenging them in a positive way to "go out into the world and do good!"

Senior Resident Wake County (Raleigh, N.C.) Superior Court Judge Don Stephens reminded us that these were the first words of the oath administered to new physicians and said he thought they were appropriate for new lawyers, too. He said the writings of Hippocrates—the father of medicine and the drafter of the original Hippocratic oath—reveal that the physicians he taught were admonished "… to help, or at least to do no harm."

The challenge here is to do no harm to our profession, to do no harm to the client we represent, and to do no harm to the community in which we live.

These swearing-in ceremonies, perhaps more frequently conducted in the fall, take place all over the country. New "officers of the court" are sworn in every day. To newly sworn "officers of the court" in Wake County, Judge Stephens went on to say, "There will never be a case, there will never be a client, there will never be a cause that is more important than your honesty and your integrity. Your honesty and your integrity are not negotiable. They are not for sale.

"If you compromise these principles, you will do great harm to yourself, your profession, ultimately to your client, and certainly to your community."

Two-term President Thomas Jefferson, well-known author of the Declaration of Independence, was also a practicing attorney who saw clients every day. He advised us all in his writings to do the right thing: "If ever you are about to say anything amiss, or do anything wrong, consider beforehand that you will feel something within you which will tell you it is wrong, and ought not to be said or done. This is your conscience, and be sure and obey it."

Back to the swearing-in. Judge Stephens went on to tell the new lawyers, "If you are true to those simple truths, I predict that you will greatly enjoy the practice of law, tough decisions will be easier to make, you will generally get a good night’s sleep, you will be proud of who you are, you will be proud of your profession, and you will have the capacity to do great good."

And now it was time to close this special session of court, but Judge Stephens wasn’t through. "It doesn’t matter where you went to law school, it doesn’t matter where you graduated in your law school class (first or last), it doesn’t matter how many times you took the bar exam before you passed it, it doesn’t matter if your parents were lawyers or if they worked on a farm or in the mill," he continued. "Today all of you begin at the same point. You will be measured henceforth by what kind of lawyer you make of yourself. Who you were is no longer relevant. Who you become is the important focus.

"A jury has just retired to deliberate on each one of you. Your jury will return in 30 or 40 years. Hopefully, each jury will have a good report—a unanimous verdict, not by a preponderance of the evidence, but beyond all reasonable doubt—that this lawyer did no harm; in fact, to the contrary—this lawyer did great good, for the clients, for the profession, for the community, and for our world.

"On behalf of the judiciary of this county and this state, we wish for each of you the very best verdict possible."

And then the sheriff adjourned the court, sine die.

Wow! I wish you could have been there. I wish all lawyers could have been there. It was a great day to be a lawyer—every day is a great day to be a lawyer! And our jury is still out.

I welcome your comments—please e-mail me at [email protected].

—Allan B. Head, chair, ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services, and executive director, North Carolina Bar Association.

[Author’s note: Special thanks to Judge Don Stephens, an eight-year veteran of the trial bench, who is well regarded as one of "the best." He graciously gives of his time and talent to the profession whenever asked. He also shares these thoughts with all of us to use as may best serve our communities. You can reach Judge Stephens at [email protected].]