On Professionalism: Retired attorney receives annual civility award

Photo by Frank Weir

Roger Chard, left, is introduced by Dykema Ann Arbor's Office Managing Member James Cameron at a meeting of the Washtenaw County Bar Association last week. Chard received the bar's Professionalism and Civility in the Practice of Law Award at the meeting.

By Roger Chard, Esq.

Editor's Note: The following speech was presented by Roger Chard, a recently retired attorney in Ann Arbor.

Chard made these remarks on the occasion of receiving the Washtenaw County Bar Association's annual Professionalism and Civility in the Practice of Law Award last week.

President Patel, President Falkenstein, Officers and Board of the Washtenaw County Bar Association, colleagues, and friends: thank you!

I deeply appreciate receiving the 2010 Professionalism and Civility Award. By my lights, its receipt is a genuinely special honor.

But, unlike those moments when someone reaches age one hundred and is asked how it was done, you will be spared all speculation as to how I came to be the recipient of this award.

The reason is simple, and the late satirist, Douglas Adams, put it best: "I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don't know the answer."

It is special that this bar association annually shines its light upon professionalism and civility to remind us that it values them as important tenets of our behavior toward each other, toward others in our profession, and toward those not a part of, but nonetheless involved with, our profession.

We have institutionalized roles as advocates and adversaries, but we also are mediators, arbitrators, and guardians.

We are charged with providing just the right amount of propulsion and resistance, lubrication and glue, for countless civil and criminal claims and defenses that constitute the corners and straight-aways of our legal system.

Our jobs never were advertised as small or easy. Besides constructing and presenting persuasive legal arguments from the facts with which we are presented, we are expected to draft orders, stipulations, contracts, and legislation that comprise the structure of ongoing relationships; we are obliged to understand that, much as there really is no such thing as a minor concussion or minor surgery, no claim, charge, or defense made in good faith is insignificant or unimportant; and to understand that, despite initial appearances of similarity, sometimes to the point of appearing identical, no two clients or cases are the same.

As lawyers, we also are social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, accountants, expected to provide appropriate ethical, emotional, and economic guidance.

It is special that this Bar promotes professionalism and civility at a time when the need for them is palpable and growing.

Promised benefits of technology abound, but, as the pharmaceutical industry might put it, there may be unexpected side effects, unintended consequences.

Time to think is evaporating, but there is ever more about which one must think.

Ability to produce top flight work product is at an all time high, improving by the minute, but thoughtfulness, care, and overall quality of communication and work product are suffering and threaten to retreat under relentless demand for speed and quantity.

Surly impatience is planted and fertilized, even though patience is more than ever needed. Cynicism and irrational anger stridently are voiced everyday, from all directions, by talking heads of politics, religion, and business, and, sadly, often by us.

A peculiar amalgam of messages from radio, television, print, and the internet eschews civic virtue, in favor of worthless ridicule.

Law school teaches aspiring lawyers valuable ways to think. We then graduate and swim into every functioning phase of our community, state, and nation: into their arts, their businesses, and all branches of their governments.

We teach, we negotiate, we advocate, we shape opinions, we legislate, we try and decide cases, we are athletic boosters, we are parents, we are board members, we play a remarkable number of roles, and we are integral to the political, social, and economic fabric of our community, state, and nation.

Whether we are five, ten, twenty, forty, or more years out of law school, what we learned there, and how we learned to learn there, must not be abandoned or allowed to rust.

We learned to see all sides of an issue. We learned that the best advocate is the best listener. We learned that when multiple legitimate positions commend themselves equally, we sometimes just have to take a point of view.

Not far removed from law school, we come to appreciate Thomas Huxley's admonition that: "There is no greater mistake than the hasty conclusion that opinions are worthless because they are badly argued."

We are humbled by Jascha Heifetz's observation that: "No matter what side of the argument you are on, you always find people on your side that you wish were on the other."

We are stared down by John Stuart Mill's insight that: "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that."

And we gain Thoreau's overarching wisdom that "It is not what you look at that matters, it's what you see."

Law school and practice supply perspective; introduce us to the great balance sheet in the sky; teach us to preserve sanity with the long view, with humor, with equanimity; reveal that great work may fetch nary a thank you; that seemingly little or no work may fetch embarrassing praise; and that reactions, of whatever type, may be long in coming.

"I want him as my attorney," a prospective client told my secretary a few years back. "I saw him in court, and he really pounded the other side." It took me a while to figure out that "the other side" was this very would-be client, twenty years earlier.

After telling a client that robbing a bank to solve his lack of money was an extremely bad idea, he told me: "You're fired, I'm gonna hire me a real attorney."

Several years after moving to Washington D.C., a former law clerk of mine called me to excitedly exclaim: "I got a job, a job with the FCC, and they said I was their first applicant in fifteen years who really could write when I got there. I told them it was partly traceable to the brief you had made me rework three times because you thought it was mealy mouthed."

And after I retired, a defendant wrote to my client's successor attorney to say: "Your client's former counsel has apparently recently retired and this is a good thing regarding landlord tenant case law as all manner of his former counsel's abuse, misuse, misdirection and manipulation of law will be uncovered and revealed. Perhaps he should have originally been encouraged to pursue his talents as a vocalist as we all would have been better off."

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for this recognition. May we leave here tonight and all strive to treat each other more reasonably, more thoughtfully, and well.

From my downhill ski instructors, I have learned that the time to stop skiing is after the next to the last run.

From law school, more likely since law school, I have learned that the time to sit down is now.

Published: Wed, May 25, 2011