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Chief Justice

Chief Justice Jeffrey F. Buebendorf

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Phi Delta Phi was founded in 1869 by four law students at the University of Michigan School of Law with the express purpose of promoting legal ethics in law schools and throughout the legal profession. This tells us that 140 years ago, the need to encourage ethical behavior among those in our profession was so obvious that students, who had no experience actually practicing law, recognized the need to develop an organization to do just that. Over the following 140 years, Phi Delta Phi has established Inns through out the United States, Canada, Latin America and Europe.

Why is the need to focus attention upon ethical behavior such a universal and timeless endeavor? The answer, I think, is simple – ethical behavior is not always easy and does not necessarily come naturally. Within each of us lies the potential to act in a responsible and ethical manner or not. Thus, the mission of Phi Delta Phi was born to attempt to teach, cultivate and nurture the part of us that will make the conscious decision to behave ethically in all that we do. I use the phrase "conscious decision to behave ethically,” because I believe that an ongoing, thoughtful evaluation of our behavior is necessary in order to maintain our course. The practice of law abounds with situations and circumstances that will test our resolve to practice ethically.

As lawyers, we have great capacity to help and to harm. The opportunity to harm others often is connected with the opportunity to engage in "self-dealing” – the opportunity to enrich ourselves at the expense of our client. Often our clients are not in a position to recognize self-dealing or to challenge it even if they do. Clients, appropriately, rely on the lawyer to do that which is right, prudent and will bring justice to their cause.

However, in this regard, rather than being consumed in advocating a client’s positions regardless of the cost to one’s own integrity, the lawyer also must consider his or her ethical obligation of candor toward the Court. If we are to practice ethically, it is not enough to treat our clients fairly – we must also treat our opponents fairly, even if they do not treat us fairly in return. In light of the foregoing, it may not be unreasonable to ask: if the ethical position in the practice of law is so difficult and selfless, why pursue that path? The answer goes beyond the fact that we know it is the "right” and "just” thing to do, and it involves the concept of what might be referred to as "Lawyer Excellence.”

The excellent lawyer is one who practices with diligence, fidelity, honor and integrity. He or she may be, but will not necessarily be, the most "successful” attorney - assuming success is measured by traditional standards of wealth and number of victories in Court. However, the truly excellent lawyer most always will be the one who has gained the quiet respect and admiration from clients, colleagues, the Court and society at large. With lawyer excellence comes the recognition that what the lawyer says will be truthful and accurate, and the expectation that the lawyer understands that the honor of being qualified to stand before the Court brings with it the heavy obligation of upholding the highest of ethical standards.

Ethical behavior breeds lawyer excellence because the ethical lawyer is required to assimilate the relevant facts and issues and express herself with precision and candor. The ethical lawyer cannot employ deceit to hide a lack of knowledge, understanding or preparation of her case. If a lawyer errs before the Court, the ethical lawyer acknowledges the error and then, through excellence as a lawyer, turns that moment into an opportunity to reframe the issue, assess the evidence and adjust the argument. By so doing, the lawyer earns the confidence of his client, the opposing lawyer and the Court – because as to each of them he has demonstrated "lawyer excellence.”

Lawyer excellence reflects not only upon the individual demonstrating such excellence, but upon the entire legal community in which he or she practices. It is in no small part because of this fact, that Phi Delta Phi was created with a view toward promoting legal ethics within the profession at large – whether in Mexico, the United States, Canada, Europe or elsewhere around the globe where lawyers enjoy a place of trust and power. The esteem in which all lawyers are held is driven by the public perception of how lawyers behave. Media reports of corruption, self-dealing and incompetence sap the public’s respect and confidence in our profession.

However, by encouraging ethical behavior and lawyer excellence, especially in law students who are embarking on their careers, it is our hope as Phi Delta Phis that we will spread an infectious cloud of integrity, honor and trust within our profession. The fact is that we should expect nothing less of ourselves, and the public we serve deserves nothing less from us. If we fail to conduct ourselves in an ethical manner, we have no right to expect to be treated ethically or fairly ourselves.

As Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, once said, "Resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.” Those who are members of Phi Delta Phi, I believe, have demonstrated a resolve to be honest, ethical lawyers, and for that they are to be commended.

Adapted from comments presented October 3, 2009 at the 2009 Conference Series on Select Themes of Justice, hosted by Institute of Technology and Superior Studies of Monterrey (ITESM), Guadalajara Campus

Full "Ethics and Lawyer Excellence" speech in English and in Spanish.