Encore: As relevant as last year.
Sherman Adams, chief of staff to President Eisenhower, almost prevented the creation of Law Day, in 1958. Adams burst into the President’s office yelling “Do not sign that paper praising lawyers!’
According to the originator of the idea of Law Day, Charles S. Rhyne, here’s what happened next:
“The President held his hand up for silence until he had read the entire document. Then he said ‘Sherm, this Proclamation does not contain one word praising lawyers. It praises our constitutional system of government, our great heritage under the rule of law, and asks our people to stand up and praise what they have created. I like it and I am going to sign it.’ And he did.”
Rhyne, who wanted May 1st to be about the rule of law and peacekeeping, not Soviet-style May Day Parades, explained further:
“It has always seemed to me that Adams thought I was urging not recognition of Law Day but recognition of a Lawyers’ Day, sort of like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. I am glad that President Eisenhower set him straight.”
Despite this history, it seems to the editorial board here at f/k/a that far too many bar groups and lawyers think of May 1st as Lawyers’ Day, rather than Law Day — and, it is just this twisting of a noble cause into a moment for self-congratulation and public relations that makes Americans suspicious of lawyers (indeed, just as suspicious as human beings have been of lawyers under all other kinds of legal systems across the millennia). (See First Thing . . . Let’s Quell All the Liars)
For an example of this little switch in emphasis, check out Trial Lawyers’ Care Is a Celebration of Law Day’s Meaning, from the American Trial Lawyers Association. Here are the first three sentences of the ATLA op-ed on Law Day (emphasis added):
May 1st is Law Day, an opportunity to reflect upon the privileges we enjoy and responsibilities we bear as citizens of a nation founded upon laws that protect our rights and ensure our freedom.
President Eisenhower no doubt recognized the great service that the American legal system and its practitioners would always provide when, in 1958, he signed a proclamation designating May 1 as Law Day. But no one could envision then that hundreds of trial lawyers would volunteer their time and talents, free of charge, to help victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their families
Similarly, the American Bar Association has decided to polish the image of lawyers by focusing on the 50th Anniversary of the landmark, school desregation decision in Brown v. Bd. of Education. Near the top of its Sample 2004 Law Day Proclamation, the ABA praises “the work of dedicated lawyers in Brown and in hundreds of other cases challenging segregation demonstrated the highest standards of advocacy in the service of a great cause.” Nowhere, are we told, of course, of the vast armies of lawyers who struggled for decades across this nation to frustrate and stall the principles of Brown and equality.
Likewise, we see a similar whitewashing in the ABA Law Day Talking Points, which boast — in a sample speech called How the Legal Profession Contributes to Our Society:
In a society based upon the rule of law, those who have studied it have played a role far out of proportion to their numbers in the population. We were present at the creation. Out of the fifty-five member of the 1787 Constitutional Convention that created the nation, thirty-one were lawyers.
From the beginning, because of the nature of our training in analysis, synthesis, critical thinking, and method of practice in a licensed profession, lawyers have been found in elected and appointed office far more than any other profession.
Overlooked is the less-than-courageous stance taken by all those founding-lawyers when it came to slavery and the status of blacks in America. (see, e.g., Garry Wills’ “Negro President“: Jefferson and the Slave Power.)
Of course, there have been courageous and admirable lawyers throughout our history. But, the American public knows that those virtues are rare — as they are in any profession, career, or walk of life. Indeed, the opposite traits seem to appear far too often in members of the legal profession, who — let’s face it — are mostly (1) in the business of helping those with money and power keep it or get more of it, or (2) doing very mundane tasks, for relatively good pay, that keep the wheels of society and government moving and individual lives running fairly well within the constraints of human limitations on planet earth.
Here’s the very first Law Day Proclamation:
“Now, therefore, I, Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate Thursday, May 1, 1958, as Law Day — USA. I urge the people of the United States to observe the designated day with appropriate ceremonies and activities; and I especially urge the legal profession, the press and the radio, television and motion picture industries to promote and to participate in the observance of that day.”
Note that Ike urged the legal profession to “promote” the day, not promote itself. In closing his remarks in 2000 about the history of Law Day, Lawyer Rhyne expressed the hope (emphasis added):
“that the opportunity which Law Day provides to reflect on the use of law by both nations and individuals will prompt both you in this audience and the leaders of nations to explore ways in which not only the Internet, but also other new technologies, can make more law more readily available to those who need it.”
Those are goals worthy of Law Day and worthy of a profession that can and should be great, but that needs to be humble, too. Instead of proclaiming ourselves the Honorees on Law Day, we should be honored to put ourselves at the service of the Law and of our clients.
- P.S. The legal profession’s image and self-image problem is not simply that “most lawyers do a terrible job of explaining to themselves or anyone else why what we do is important and valuable.” It is also that we don’t even try to explain or acknowledge that (or why) a lot of what we do is not any more important or valuable than what most workers do day in and day out at their jobs; nor do we explain very well why so many lawyers seem to be doing things that are harmful to society and, often, to our own clients.
- Lots of lawyers like to say they are “proud of their profession.” That language is either meaninglessly broad or far too imprecise. skepticalEsq suggests that it’s more appropriate to be “proud” of one’s own knowledge, professionalism, dedication, and application of skills and effort — and of particular instances of all of the above in others.
- Been sounding too much like my predecessor lately. Gonna have to (en)lighten up. For a lawyer-related smile, from Frank & Ernest, click here; Callahan on lawyers here: and Bizarro here.
update: Further food for thought: Bar & Guild (April 26, 2005), and towards a better Law Day (May 2, 2005).
- Enjoy a few haiku, from Barry George, longtime “recovering lawyer”, now English teacher and haiku poet:
“at the risk of repeating myself”
first murder trial–
the D.A. arrives
in new gloves
the lawyer carries home
the accused teen
and his lawyer…
dressed for spring