The Anatomy of Our Oath

Robert Gottfried
A prerequisite of your license is your inviolable promise that you will always support and defend the Constitution in all situations.

A prerequisite of your license is your inviolable promise that you will always support and defend the Constitution in all situations.

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The road to becoming a practicing attorney is a long and arduous one. After years of law school and months of studying for the bar exam, one more step remains before we are officially licensed to practice. Every lawyer in the country must be sworn in and take their state’s oath of attorney. This ceremony may seem traditional and mundane, but it has never been more important. This oath binds each attorney to certain professional obligations and requires us, as lawyers, to faithfully uphold and support the laws of our state and our country. 

What does it mean to take an oath? Merriam-Webster defines an oath as “a solemn attestation of the truth or inviolability of one’s words.” We ask new attorneys to take an oath on the day they receive their licenses and as a condition of that license. The words in that oath are a mandate to all attorneys that they practice with professionalism, integrity, and respect. Each state’s oath varies in its wording, but they all require of us the same three duties: 1) to support the Constitution of the United States, 2) to faithfully discharge the duties of an attorney, and 3) to conduct oneself with integrity and civility.

  “I solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, . . .”

As officers of the courts, lawyers are sworn to support the Constitution not just of the state in which they seek to practice, but above all, to support the Constitution of the United States. This promise is included first in every state’s attorney oath, and it is the most important promise that a new attorney will make. It commands an attorney to take action to ensure the supreme law of the land is followed and upheld. This promise is a burden on all lawyers—every lawyer must defend the US Constitution, in all ways, at all times.

Current events have caused us to look closer at this promise. Are we obligated to defend the Constitution if a client is paying us to do the opposite? Are we required to support the Constitution when our desired outcome justifies its subversion? Without question or qualification, the answer is “yes.” A prerequisite of your license is your inviolable promise that you will always support and defend the Constitution in all situations. Lawyers may not take actions, advocate for positions, or demand relief that would cause them to do otherwise; this is, above all, our most sacred promise.

“. . . that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of attorney, . . .”

Next, new attorneys are asked to “faithfully discharge the duties of the office of attorney.” Every state has its own code of professional conduct, many based on the ABA’s own Model Rules of Professional Conduct. These rules define the nature of an attorney’s professional and personal life, prescribing exactly what an attorney must do inside and outside of the courtroom or in practice. We are required to take these rules seriously, to work and live by the rules defining the duties of our office. They require us to maintain our client’s confidence, execute our professional functions competently and diligently, conform to the law’s requirements in our business and personal affairs, uphold the legal process, and seek improvement in the law and access to legal systems. Herein is another burden imposed by our oaths: even when we think no one is watching, even when our client’s position would cause us to advocate for the opposite, even when we are engaging in business outside the practice of law, our oaths require us to remain honest and diligent and to uphold the rule of law even when it is difficult or adverse to our personal or professional objectives.

“. . . and that I will conduct myself at all times with integrity and civility.”

This last promise is not explicitly requested of attorneys in every state. However, integrity and civility are written into the codes of professional conduct in each state, and maintaining those qualities is a component of faithfully discharging the duties of our office.

That said, many states explicitly call out the need for attorneys to maintain integrity, civility, honesty, dignity, and courteousness. Turn on the news, and you will find that attorney dishonesty, incivility, and lack of integrity are omnipresent in our society. In our adversarial system, it has become so common to attack opposing parties rather than to work with them. Vitriol and stubbornness prevail more often than not. This final promise in our oaths reminds us that we have a duty to comport ourselves oppositely. We have a duty to be civil, personify the values of honesty and integrity, and build up the reputation of the profession. This promise requires us to work together to achieve a fairer system—a system that represents the needs of our clients first and foremost, not the wants of their attorneys. In that sense, we see what the Oath of Attorney is about—it’s about devoting ourselves to the betterment of the profession and our communities, to ensuring that the rule of law is upheld, to advocating honestly and with integrity, and to making the system a fairer, more representative, and more just place for all.

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Robert Gottfried

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Robert Gottfried is staff counsel at the American Bar Association Center for Professional Responsibility in Chicago, Illinois.