September 01, 2011 Civic Education

Committee News: Lawyers: Keepers of Justice and Liberty

By T. Maxfield Bahner

When I first learned that I would receive the Pickering Award, I had many emotions. Surprise is too mild a term; shock still is not strong enough. As I reflected, I thought that what this award is really about is John Pickering. Many of us in this room knew John Pickering. Although he has left us, his influence remains a palpable force. He is a giant of our profession, a giant of the American Bar Association.

All of us in our generations are indebted to those men and women of great vision and great achievement who put their indelible imprint on the law. They did this within the sphere of their own lives. The force of their combined efforts through their daily practice and the American Bar Association has strengthened the American legal system, which I think is the strongest legal system in the world. The law, and indeed the whole experiment of this country, is indebted to these great men and women.

Now it is our duty and privilege to continue the work they so ably accomplished. It is critical for the future of the United States that we try to reflect in our lives the clear vision and high ideals that characterized their lives.

The paradigm of the law changes, as it must to serve a dynamic society. As the paradigm changes, however, the core values on which legal practice rests must not change, whether that practice is as judges on the bench of justice or lawyers practicing before the bar or working out problems with other lawyers. The verities matter.

If our society loses the foundation of the normative values that have given our country the environment of freedom and privilege, we cannot continue to succeed as the leader of the free world. Nor if we allow our society to lose the foundation of these normative values can our nation continue to be a place where people may enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our forefathers taught us that to achieve great things we must be willing to give up some things in order to have what is most important.

My late partner, Jac Chambliss, talked many times about the priesthood of the law. When I was in law school, our teachers taught us that, while we might make a comfortable living from law practice, the far more important reason for being a lawyer, indeed for the legal profession, is to serve the ideas of justice and liberty. If, as individual practitioners of this art, we in the ABA as a professional body forget this proportional perspective, we imperil the future of the law as the servant of American society.

We cannot allow self-aggrandizement to overcome this precious idea of servanthood at the bar of justice.

We are keepers of the great idea of the rule of law. As John Pickering lived his life, it is our responsibility and privilege to teach the inestimable value of the rule of law to those who follow. 

T. Maxfield Bahner, senior counsel at Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel in Chattanooga and 2009–10 Senior Lawyers Division chair, was pre- sented with the John H. Pickering Achievement Award at the 2011 ABA Annual Meeting in Toronto.