The Art and Science of Law

The Duty of Humility

Do lawyers have an ethical obligation of humility?




12:00am EST

Do lawyers have an ethical obligation of humility?

We know lawyers have an ethical duty of competence and supervision.  But, in a practice environment which increasingly requires that attorneys manage and participate in cross-functional teams, don’t we also have a duty to manifest the humility required to be good managers and team members?

It’s not news that lawyers often take a posture of omniscience.  This may be a function of the natural disposition of many who enter the profession, or a more carefully cultivated strategic affect—or both.  In either event, that pose is less convincing, and less productive (if it ever was) when faced with matters that span multiple geographies, pull in disparate stakeholders, leverage myriad technologies, and trigger critical financial pressures—just to name a very few of the various factors that are often in play.

In this environment, attorneys must rely on the expertise—not just the labor—of many contributors, including, non-lawyers and “junior” team members.  And these same attorneys must be able to create a working environment that fosters the enthusiastic, candid, and sustained involvement of those contributors.  Trained in the intensely hierarchical institutions of the profession, i.e., firms and courts, this can be very challenging for many lawyers. 

Not, however, to put too fine a point on it . . . get over it.  Seriously.  Those who don’t are failing their clients.

Start by remembering that team leadership and team participation are not, and cannot, be mutually exclusive.  Next, ask whether it’s possible to fulfill your duties of competence and supervision without also being humble enough to encourage and respond to novel, or opposing, views and facts from collaborators at all levels?

It’s long past time for the lawyers to recognize they have to fulfill a duty of humility if they hope to provide the most effective possible representation for their clients.

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