Integrity: A lawyer's most valuable asset

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Every semester, Cooley Law School Ann Arbor campus Dean Joan Vestrand asks Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Archie Brown if he needs a break from teaching. And every semester Brown says no thanks.

Apparently, the students are better off for it.

"As the dean of the campus, I get to see his teaching evaluations every term, and they're always extraordinary," said Vestrand, speaking to a crowd last week in the Cooley auditorium. "Students feel not only is he, of course, extremely knowledgable in the areas of family law and trial skills, but students overwhelmingly say that he seems to really care about their learning and is very invested in their success. Those are very high compliments for any professor to receive."

Brown was chosen to speak as part of the school's Integrity in Our Communities speaker series--which features judges, attorneys, and community leaders sharing their thoughts about ethics, professionalism, and community service--because of his integrity, devotion to the law, compassion for others, and service to the community, Vestrand said.

"He's an outstanding example of a citizen lawyer, and the kind of lawyer we want you to be," Vestrand told the students.

In his talk, Brown defined integrity as the steadfast inherence to a strict ethical code.

"I suggest that your integrity is the most valuable asset you possess or will ever possess," he said. "You must guard it jealously at all times because your integrity equates to your reputation."

Brown focused on the careers of lawyers Abraham Lincoln, Clarence Darrow, and Louis Nizer, a trial lawyer who died in 1994 at the age of 92.

He said Lincoln believed that those considering a career in law should resolve to be honest at all events, and quoted him saying: "And if in your judgment, you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer."

Brown said Darrow was an influential member of the ACLU and outspoken critic of any laws or individuals who encroached on civil rights.

He referred to several of Darrow's famous trials, including the 1925-26 murder trials of African American Dr. Ossian Sweet in Detroit, whose family and friends were charged with murder while trying to defend the newly purchased Sweet home from a white mob attempting to force him out.

The all white jury was deadlocked--after an eight-hour closing argument by Darrow. In a second trial, he whittled his closing argument to five hours, and ended in acquittal.

Brown described the lesser known Nizer as another example of a man of integrity who constantly took on unpopular causes and combatted wealthy institutions.

"He often reflected that maintaining one's integrity required incredible courage and a sense of fearlessness," he said.

Brown closed with a quote from Shakespeare's Dick the Butcher, who said, as a way to start anarchy in a civil society: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

"Your charge as future lawyers," said Brown, "is to guard your reputation and integrity zealously and develop a good moral compass such that you understand your duties and responsibilities to yourself and your loved ones, the bar, the bench and society as a whole; that as ethical professionals, you can stand up to the popular will when necessary, and do the right thing for your client as well as society.

"My question to you is: 'Will your word be your bond?'"

Published: Mon, Mar 31, 2014