Professionalism in Action: Justice Zahra gives keynote at ethics program


 By Steve Thorpe

Legal News
Michigan Supreme Court Justice Brian Zahra recalls being brought down to earth on one of his first days of law school when a wise old teacher likened the law to buying a can of peas.
“Prof. Leon Lysaght told me ‘Your life is going to change from this day forward.  Never again will you walk into a store and buy a can of peas off the shelf. You will look at that can and see an offer. You will have to decide whether you want to make an acceptance of that offer. When you pay for that can of peas, you now have a binding contract.’ ”
The justice was the keynote speaker during the State Bar of Michigan’s Professionalism in Action Orientation Program conducted Thursday, Jan. 5, at Cooley Law School’s Auburn Hills campus. The school and the State Bar were partners in presenting the program on ethics and professionalism to first year law students.
Zahra brought the audience down to earth a bit himself in explaining why he was not wearing a suit jacket while speaking. “It’s on the kitchen table at home,” he said. “My 7-year-old and 10-year-old kids missed the school bus. Getting them ready for school and out the door kind of overwhelmed me,“ he said.
He also congratulated Cooley on incorporating material on professional ethics into its first year law curriculum and said he wished that his school had done the same. Zahra proceeded to tell a story about a fellow law student who became ensnarled in a plagiarism scandal and did such a poor job of handling it that the student was still professionally haunted by it years later.
Zahra encouraged the students to leave behind any bad character issues they may have had in the past. “Your character is judged by what you present today,” he said. 
He also decried what he sees as slipping ethical standards in the field. 
“Many think they will do what it takes to get the result they need. But that’s not what the practice of law is about. We need to act with honesty and integrity while zealously representing the interests of our clients. “
And he concluded with a bold statement about how important he believes the issue is.
“I know with all my heart that lawyers are the most critical part of the greatest society in the world,” he said. “In this country, people take their battles to court and then accept the results. They accept the results because of the integrity of the system.”
After the remarks by Zahra the students broke up into groups to discuss theoretical problems with a distinguished group of 15 experts including Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Gershwin Drain, Caterina Amaro, Mike Bishop, Henry Baskin and others, as well as members of the Cooley faculty. The small groups analyzed the issues involved in each problem and then evaluated the solutions at the end of the session.
During the program moderator Lisa Halushka, assistant dean of Cooley’s Auburn Hills campus, also took time to award this year’s Frederick J. Griffith III Adjunct Faculty Award to Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Colleen O’Brien. The award recognizes faculty members who exhibit excellence in teaching and compassion for law students. O’Brien has taught pre-trial skills at the school for 11 terms.
In addition, Caterina Amaro of the Law Offices of Garmo & Associates PC received a pro bono appreciation award for her service to Cooley’s Immigration Outreach Program with Catholic Social Services of Oakland County.