Retired Justice Harper at last night's event
Retired Justice Harper at CBA event

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend the Connecticut Bar Association’s awards dinner — titled, “Celebrate with the Stars”. It was a lovely event filled with accolades for some of the state’s best and brightest in the legal profession and beyond.

Yeah yeah, I can hear some of you say. Just another lawyers’ dinner. Boring.

But hear me out for a second.  What dinners like these remind me of — and should inform you of — is the fact that so many lawyers in the state continue to treat the work we do as a profession — rather than simply a business.

Yeah yeah, I can hear some of you say.  Nothing like lawyers talking about their self-importance. 

And my response is: If that’s what you believe, then as lawyers, we have to do a better job informing you about the system we are all involved with.  It’s just not like Law & Order. (Nor is it like Ally McBeal either, sadly.)

To understand our system, one can start by hearing the words from some of the giants of the Connecticut legal scene, like famed criminal defense lawyer Willie Dow and retired Supreme Court Justice Lubbie Harber, Jr., both of whom received awards last night.

During their remarks, both Dow and Harper talked about the central role that lawyers play in society — not only as people who look out for their clients, but as citizens who also look to the serve the profession, and the public.  Indeed, Dow received the bar association’s “professionalism” award.

When I work with new clients, that dynamic sometimes come into play.

When I was a younger lawyer, I attended a similar bar dinner with a federal judge at the time. He made a statement that has really stuck with me; he reminded the young lawyers that a client may have only one case in the courts, but it is likely that the lawyer will have to come up against the other side’s attorney time and again. He urged the lawyers in the room to never forget that the client’s case is not the lawyer’s case and to treat the case accordingly.  Objecting to an extension of time did not, for example, advance the interests of justice in most instances.

He was not suggesting that we avoid our duty to be a zealous advocate for our client. But he reminded us that our role was larger than that as well.  And he suggested that when you view the other side as a respected opponent (perhaps even when they may not deserve it), it serves the legal system and our system of justice better.

I know there are some who disagree with this approach. These lawyers preferred a scorched earth approach in which they object to everything and agree with nothing.   And, if you’re reading this looking for such a lawyer, you should look elsewhere.

Indeed, the lawyers and judges last night would also take umbrage with that approach. These folks understand that the legal profession deserves something more than that.  Indeed, Dow relayed advice he heard from a jurist as well: A lawyer has two roles — look out for your client and look out for the other attorney.

As an employment lawyer mainly representing companies, one of the things I’m always conscious of is the fact that the employees who sometimes bring suit are real people with families and dreams and aspirations of their own.  They are not villains to be vilified for sport.

Yes, it’s a case and we are brought in to defend our client’s position. But empathy for the other side and respect for the attorney bringing the case also brings, in my view, an enlightened approach where you can better understand the weaknesses in your client’s own position.

While the overwhelming majority of the employers I deal with are simply business people trying to do the right thing under difficult circumstances, they are not infallible either.  Sometimes they make mistakes — whether in not understanding the law or in overreacting to the situation.  Listening to the other side can make everyone better.

So, kudos to all the award recipients last night. You are models to our legal profession and help remind all of us that our work is never done and that we can always strive for excellence.