Why honour defines the legal profession.
by Caroline Nevin
It is an accepted truth in my half-Japanese household that a ninja kills you asleep in bed, but a samurai kicks you awake to see his face – and only then will he kill you. The implication is that, unlike the ninja, a samurai lives by a code of honour that precludes sneaky behaviour and requires that even an enemy be treated with a measure of dignity. While both may take a life, it is the samurai who will do it with honour.
The concept of a code of honour seems almost quaint in our hyper-secular and libertarian society. Yet, even the most jaded of modern hearts responds to the myths and movies that show loners and gangs who live the values of bravery, loyalty, integrity, compassion, skill and sacrifice for the greater good. Classic westerns, Jedi Knights, even the Transformers hold immense attraction, perhaps not least because we long for a path of clear choices.
Let’s face it: a code of honour makes life a great deal simpler. Everything’s white and black, there’s not much gray to ponder. How attractive that clarity looks in a life faced with endless information and choices; where money and power are given too much value; and where the stress of modern life leads to poor health and even poorer behaviour.
Wikipedia’s definition of a code of honour is as follows: a set of rules or principles governing a community, based on a set of rules or ideals that define what constitutes honourable behavior within that community. The use of an honour code depends on the idea that people (at least within the community) can be trusted to act honourably. Those who are in violation of the honour code can be subject to various sanctions, including expulsion from the institution.
It is here that the legal profession truly sets itself apart as a community of honour. Yes, the business interests of law firms may have grown in importance. Yes, government lawyers work within a system that is at times political. And yes, corporate counsel may face great pressure to meet their employer’s objectives. But no-one stands more clearly committed to a code of honour than the band of men and women who choose life in the law.
Over the past 12 years, I have had the great privilege of seeing this truth in action. I have heard from numerous people profoundly grateful for pro bono services provided by members of the Bar – from exceptional veterans in the largest firms, to the best and brightest of our newest lawyers.
I have seen lawyers who may or may not know each other come together to help one of their own in distress; sometimes through a direct offering of expertise or cash, other times through a respectful referral to LAP or the Benevolent Society.
I have seen thousands of lawyers volunteer their time and brains to benefit their communities through local organizations, or to benefit their profession and Canadian society through the CBA. And I have witnessed the dedication of Law Society Benchers and staff who impose judgment, sanctions and expulsion on those who violate the profession’s code of honour, while providing reparation to anyone harmed. In fact, it is one of the profession’s hallmarks that all lawyers contribute in order to pay for any harm done by the few.
The code of the samurai is not a far-flung analogy for the profession – finely honed adversarial and negotiating skills; a true sense of honour and integrity; deep compassion for those less fortunate; an abiding loyalty to one another; commitment to a life of service; and faith that one’s purpose is to make things better. To all of you honourable people, a deep samurai bow.
This article was published in the October 2009 issue of BarTalk. © 2009 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.