Use the Force: Ethical Guidance from a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Authoring Attorney: John M. Avondet
Sep 11, 2012

Use the Force: Ethical Guidance from a Galaxy Far, Far Away

The Bencher--September/October 2012

By John M. Avondet, Esquire

"If you choose the quick and easy path…you will become an agent of evil."
-Master Yoda

Yoda's wisdom applies not only to prospective Jedi Knights but also to those of us who practice law. Becoming a lawyer requires no practicum or hands on experience; instead, prospective lawyers need only pass a bar exam, satisfy the ethical requirements for the state, and be sworn in. Lawyers fortunately have the rules of professional conduct to guide them when facing ethical questions. However, that is not all lawyers have at their disposal. Every new lawyer should have the benefit of those who have gone before him or her. These seasoned lawyers have the chance to become mentors to the new ones. It is the value of a mentor that the Star Wars saga illustrates so emphatically.

Becoming a Great Jedi Knight

In Episode I The Phantom Menace, viewers are first introduced to a young, bright, and happy boy named Anakin Skywalker. It is readily apparent to the viewers that this young boy has the innate abilities and skill to succeed as a Jedi. Qui-Gon Jinn, a Jedi Master, immediately perceives Anakin's talents upon meeting him and remarks to Anakin's mother that Anakin possesses Jedi traits. Qui-Gon takes it upon himself to take Anakin to the Jedi Temple where Anakin would be trained as a Jedi. Qui-Gon intends to mentor Anakin, look after him, and to teach him to apply the Jedi Code.

Many young lawyers start out like Anakin: bright eyed, idealistic, and ready to confront the dark side with their legal acumen. New lawyers enter the profession under immense pressure from various sources including student loan debt and other self-imposed expectations. In addition to those pressures new lawyers carry the burden of the billable hour, client accountability, confidentiality, and competency. Most new lawyers fortunately have mentors like Qui-Gon Jinn. Those mentors counsel, lead, and influence the young "padawan" throughout the beginning stages of the professional experience.

I am lucky enough to have had a variety of mentors in my brief six-year practice. Though I have focused my practice on litigating and trying cases, many of the senior attorneys at my firm who do not do litigation have mentored me. When I first started practicing I came into work early each morning, but I never beat the senior partner to the office. When I would walk into the office at 6:30 in the morning, he was already there toiling away. Those early morning moments were opportunities for me to chat with him about his projects, be taught the value of hard work and commitment, and to be challenged to do my best in the profession. He never seemed perturbed or bothered by my questions and I am grateful for the chance I had to begin learning from him at day one of my professional career.

The ABA Model Rules require supervisory lawyers in firms to make reasonable efforts to ensure that all of a firm's lawyers comply with their ethical obligations. This includes all of the duties outlined in the professional conduct guidelines. The only way to accomplish this requirement is to be involved in the practice of the young lawyer and to know what is going on. This requires effort by the senior lawyers, but it is not unmanageable or overly burdensome. A quick lunch meeting here or a round of golf there are opportunities to discuss legal issues, life as a lawyer, or anything else that a young lawyer needs to know. Some of my most memorable mentoring, by one of my partners, occurred while playing a round of golf at one of the local golf courses. Mentoring a young lawyer has the potential to provide a meaningful experience for all involved and forges lasting professional relationships.

The Force Binds Us Together

Lawyers should feel an ethical imperative to mentor all young lawyers with whom they come into contact. Young lawyers who are out on their own need mentoring just as much as the new associate down the hall from the senior partner. New lawyers are bright and enthusiastic individuals who may not recognize dangers that are readily apparent to fully trained Jedi Knights. Experienced lawyers can have a great influence on padawans. Reaching out to fresh faces during a break at a CLE or at a local meeting fosters collegiality and trust. It also facilitates the giving of advice when possible. New lawyers who hang up a shingle right out of law school should not be afraid to ask for guidance from the veteran corps of lawyers in their respective communities.

Returning to Anakin's story, Qui-Gon dies in Episode I, leaving Anakin adrift in a universe he was experiencing for the first time. Enter Obi-wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon's former apprentice and a Jedi Knight. Obi-wan takes over mentoring Anakin. Initially, Obi-wan does not have the same relationship of trust with Anakin as Qui-Gon. During the course of Episode II, Attack of the Clones, it is evident that the two had become good friends. Notwithstanding the apparent closeness the two developed over a decade of working together, Anakin whines and complains to Padmé about Obi-wan and the Jedi Council. Anakin believes they are holding him back from progressing. His complaints reveal his own narrow understanding of his role and experience as a Jedi.

When young lawyers gain some experience they often believe that they are ready to handle big cases without the oversight of other experienced lawyers. The young padawan should be wary of such a task. First, the case might just be beyond the lawyer's skill level. Second, the lawyer might not have the requisite expertise or knowledge of the substantive law at issue. Research only goes as far as experience allows. When that time comes, both the experienced and inexperienced lawyers should recognize the vital nature of their respective roles. The experienced lawyer should ensure that he or she is always available to counsel about the case and to offer strategic advice about evidentiary issues, argument presentation, and jury appeal. The new lawyer should be sensitive to his or her weaknesses and seek to compensate for these weaknesses in ways that will not prejudice or hurt the client's cause. It is a delicate balancing act repeatedly played out in the profession and one that requires both sides not to harbor resentment for the other's talents or inclinations. Proper perspective is key.

Resentment often leads to resistance of a mentor's counsel. During Episode II, Yoda counsels Anakin that he should be prepared to let go of those he loves and cares for. Anakin resists his mentors' counsel, travels to Tatooine, and seriously transgresses the Jedi Code by slaughtering those who captured and killed his mother. Anakin's resentment of the Jedi Code's prohibition on "attachments" leads him to marry Padmé in secret, directly violating his Jedi beliefs.

Obviously, resistance of a mentor's counsel in the legal profession will not lead to the catastrophic consequences arising out of Anakin's resentment in Episode II. Instead, the resistance of good counsel from other experienced lawyers may lead to mistakes that would have otherwise been easily avoidable.

For example, early in my career I filed a petition for a preliminary injunction. I did not allege in the petition that there had been a breach of contract or even a threatened breach of contract. I did not allege any facts, really, to support the petition; I just asked for the injunction. After serving the petition, I received a phone call from opposing counsel who proceeded to go through the requirements of the rule governing preliminary injunctions and suggested I should amend my pleading. He did not brow beat me nor did he belittle my effort. He knew that I was new and I was learning. He viewed it as a teachable moment and I am grateful for his effort. It was an easily avoidable error but I thought I was ready to handle the issue on my own.

The Dark Side Is Not Stronger

Episode III reveals the culmination of Anakin's fall to the dark side and his choice to become an agent of evil. Anakin's resentment of his mentors persisted throughout the Clone Wars. Though he had a loving wife, his secrets and fear of losing those he loved drove him to take the "quick and easy path" to solving his problems. When the Jedi Order became an obstacle, he promptly betrayed it and pledged allegiance to the dark side. In an effort to cover his and the Emperor's tracks he ended up harming the ones he loved and ultimately being encased in a suit of armor and became the image of evil: Darth Vader.

Anakin took the quick and easy path because it was the path of least resistance. So it can also be with lawyers. All lawyers probably start out with good intentions but some see the "quick and easy path" as being too tempting and seductive. These lawyers decide to say and do anything, regardless of truth, to gain an advantage in a case. They take advantage of younger and less experienced ones rather than mentoring them.

Lawyers do have an ethical obligation to represent our clients with diligence, faithfulness, loyalty, and competence. There is a right way and a wrong way to fulfill those duties and the duties cannot be abrogated. The duties are fiduciary in nature and are jealously protected by the law. Lawyers have a duty to communicate with clients and keep them informed about their cases. The duty to communicate must be meaningful enough to the clients are reasonably capable of participating in the representation relationship. There is no quick and easy path to addressing these ethical obligations. Fulfilling the obligations takes significant time and effort each day we practice.

Likely the worst thing a new lawyer can do while practicing law is be dishonest and not disclose mistakes to his supervising lawyer or the client. Covering up mistakes only leads to the dark side. If something goes wrong during a case, the new lawyer should feel like he or she can come to the supervising lawyer and discuss what happened. This level of trust is only available if proper mentoring and supervision has occurred over the course of the new lawyer's career.

At the end of the day, there is no Ewok celebration for the practice of law. There is simply the fact that lawyers participate in a noble and honorable profession. It is one that all lawyers should take pride in and one that should bring about great personal satisfaction. Seasoned lawyers should strive to instill the values and nobility of the profession in the newest lawyers. Only then can the new lawyers avoid the quick and easy path. Then, just like the Jedi Knights, lawyers become guardians of peace of justice in our society.

John M. Avondet is a trial attorney and shareholder with Beard St. Clair Gaffney PA in Idaho Falls, Idaho.  He is a member of the Eagle Rock AIC and is a lifelong fan of the Star Wars saga.

© 2012 JOHN M. AVONDET, ESQ. This article was published in the September/October 2012 issue of The Bencher, the flagship magazine of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.