Golden age of lawyers must not be tarnished by profit principle

ABA president Philip Anderson says the profession must jealously guard its independence in the face of an onslaught from big business. Philip Anderson is president of the American Bar Association.

Siegfried Sassoon wrote a paean to English country life in the late nineteenth century and published it as The Old Century (Faber & Faber, London [1938]). Shortly after the period covered in its pages, the world changed forever in the wake of one of the cruellest wars in history.

Sassoon had been through the horrors of that war when he wrote his memoir. He fully understood the contrast his readers would draw between the old century and the new one. Indeed, that was his intent. He wanted to remind others of important values that had been lost.

The landscape of youth is usually golden in retrospect, and Sassoon wrote with the benefit of hindsight.

In some ways, the end of the 20th century has been a golden age for lawyers. That is certainly true if it is measured by the contributions lawyers have made in pursuing a system of laws that promotes commerce and encourages investment. It is also true if measured by contributions lawyers have made in delivering legal services to the poor and improving access to justice.

Sassoon's book was written 30 years after the events it described. How will a lawyer 30 years from now contrast the legal profession at that time with the profession today?

There are two common characteristics of the justice systems in our countries that must be preserved if the comparison is to be favourable: judicial independence and the independence of the profession.

The independence of the judiciary is recognised throughout the world as a source of liberty and stability. Yet, in the US, politicians continue to criticise the constitutional safeguards that permit judges to issue opinions that are sound in law but unpopular in some segments of our society.

The changes proposed to remedy the perceived problem would eliminate the independence that our federal judges now enjoy.

Lawyers working in the US must protect judicial independence in the country by vigorously speaking out against any proposals that would weaken it.

The independence of the profession is perhaps more vulnerable than the independence of judges. Today, there are encroachments on the delivery of legal services. Where businessmen see a market, lawyers see clients whose confidences must be preserved and who must be protected from conflicts of interest. An independent profession strengthens the fabric of our society and protects the public.

Will the professional values of this old century be preserved in the new century? This is the profession's most daunting challenge as we enter the new millennium.