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Self-Assessment - The Value of Not Killing a Mockingbird

By Ronald Fox


"Mockingbirds don't do but one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat up people's gardens, don't nest in corncribs, they don't do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
----------To Kill A Mockingbird

Ruth was having a terrible time going to sleep. She could not decide whether she should stay at the firm. She agonized over it every day at work and constantly discussed it with her husband every night. Now, he was snoring blissfully at her side. It was not helping her reflections.

She reviewed her Take Control exercise results and thought, "My score was a 3.7. I have no intellectual stimulation, I can't say what's on my mind, I am not being trained, I don't have time for my family, and I don't contribute to the public good. So I dislike my job! I am dissatisfied like half the lawyers in this country."

But she kept thinking about the MacCrate Report and one of the task force's four fundamental values of the legal profession; i.e., the obligation to take a position where you can develop as a professional and pursue your personal and professional goals. What does that mean to be a professional - a lawyer? Why did she decide back in high school that she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father and Atticus Finch, the lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird?

As true professionals they were autonomous and independent. As independent practitioners, they both could choose to take cases where people were being treated unjustly. Why did Atticus take Tom Robinson's case despite the obvious negative effects on him and his family? Very simply, as he tells Jem because "If I didn't, I couldn't hold my head high in this town and could never tell you to do something again."

Most important, my father, a widower like Atticus, was nearly always home for dinner. He was there to protect me and give me advice on how to deal with my many social, educational and other crises . When he told me about his cases, I realize that he was providing me with guidance on how to live a just and moral life.

Both saw the goodness in others and believed in treating everyone with respect and dignity - the poor, the uneducated, blacks, the elderly, the disabled. What has happened to the profession? Why should MacCrate have to state that the lawyer "should accord appropriate dignity and respect to all people with whom one interacts in a professional capacity"? Should parties, witnesses, lawyers, court employees and other persons involved in the legal process, including lawyers working in law firms or in any other setting, expect to be treated otherwise?

Ruth had just read the American Survey in the Friday, the 13th of December edition of the Wall Street Journal. The article on the nation's values began "All around them, Americans see a decline in values and morals. They deplore the diminished authority of the four great repositories of their values - religion, the law, schools and families. Yet despite their pessimism, Americans passionately believe in the importance of values..... Morals and values are the underpinnings of people's choices - the reason they get jobs, raise children, vote and don't rob banks."

She wondered about what a fundamental value is. It's more than a regulation, closer to a commandment, a principle which cannot be violated because to do so would be like killing a mockingbird - a sin? What are her fundamental values?

She read again another of MacCrate's four fundamental values: "As a member of a profession that bears special responsibility for the quality of justice, a lawyer should be committed to the values of promoting justice, fairness and morality in one's own daily practice; contributing to the profession's fulfillment of its responsibility to ensure that adequate legal services are provided to those who cannot afford to pay for them; contributing to the profession's fulfillment of its responsibility to enhance the capacity of law and legal institutions to do justice." Atticus would go for that, she thought. I need values that are resistant to compromise and, yes, bribery.

She decided that she had to have an integrated life where she could do what had meaning for her: represent competently people who needed her; treat others and be treated with respect and dignity; and be there for her family.

But her present position required her to violate these principles.

She has no interest in any of her cases. It makes absolutely no difference to her which side wins them. The paper shuffling she sees appears to be a waste of time and money. In fact she often has only a vague idea what the case is about, usually being assigned but one defined task. She finds no meaning in her work. She is expected to care about matters the partners seem to care about passionately. Perhaps that is why, despite all her diligence, no one -- associate, partner, or client -- ever shows any appreciation for what she does.

She remembers the time when she took a case for the abused women's shelter but had to postpone a hearing because a partner demanded she accompany him to a deposition where she was not needed. The atmosphere at the firm is one of little tolerance for such efforts, whereas there is little ambivalence about the importance of billable hours. She found poor solace in Chief Justice Rehnquist's observation in the MacCrate Report that the drive for 'profit-maximization' has caused modern lawyers to ignore the 'public aspect' of the profession, including the obligation to serve the community by doing 'pro bono' work."

While she takes her family obligations quite seriously, some partners view such responsibilities very differently. Late last June, when she returned from visiting her father after emergency surgery, she was berated and screamed at by a partner simply for staying three days although she had neglected none of her work and stayed in constant contact with the office.

She began to understand what the MacCrate Report meant which it said "a lawyer will not develop as a professional unless the lawyer is in an employment setting where he or she can effectively pursue his or her professional and personal goals". If you are doing work contrary to your values you will be miserable. She reread the quote by Richard Bourne on page 19 of "Lawful Pursuit," "Know yourself and try to find a position that fits with your interests and your skills. Don't accept dollars or a title because ...society defines these factors as valuable. ... Be flexible, and if you really hate what you're doing, leave because life is too short to do otherwise."

Wistfully, she recalled the scene when Atticus leaves the courtroom. As all the blacks in the packed balcony stand in silence, the Reverend admonishes Jem "Stand up - your father's passing." Would they have told "lawyer jokes" that night? She hoped one day she might earn such a tribute. Atticus and her father stood tall and had the self-respect that comes from knowing that they were doing the right thing - making the world a better place and serving the public. One was fictitious, but the other was real. The ideal and the real were not hopelessly different.

She remembered that she used to dance, sing, play basketball, and write poetry, and now has neither the time nor, worse, the inclination. A huge wave of sadness and determination passed through her, and she thought "I .. am ... a ...mockingbird ... they ... are ... not ... going ... to .. . kill ... me" and realized that she had decided to leave the firm. With a long sigh, she rolled over and sank into a deep sleep.
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