Scott Urges Graduates to Promote Public Trust and Offers Advice for a Professional Life Well Lived

Columbia University Law Professor Robert E. Scott began his remarks at the Law School's May 17 graduation ceremony with the Prof Scotthumorous prediction that in a few years' time the graduates, if asked, would vaguely recall that their commencement speaker was "some guy from another law school." He urged them, however, to associate with their law school graduation the question he posed at the start of his remarks:   "Can you be trusted?"

Click here for complete text of Professor Scott's remarks.

In her introduction, Dean Lynda Butler noted that Scott, a 1968 graduate of the Law School and former dean of the University of Virginia School of Law, is "one of the preeminent scholars in the fields of contracts, commercial law and bankruptcy, a leader of great vision and civility, and an energetic and energizing teacher."

True to that introduction, Scott explained that his question about trust pertained to "a public trust that is honored by a special kind of lawyer, the lawyer who serves as a public citizen." To the audience's delight, he explained that he planned to shed light on the topic by examining "one of the most significant cultural phenomena of our time: lawyer jokes."

 "What do they tell us about the way society (including the legal profession) view lawyers and the legal system? And, what do we as lawyers do to change some of the unfavorable features of the current environment?"

He began to warm the audience to his approach by sharing the following:

A lawyer needs to hire a plumber.  The plumber comes and fixes a broken water pipe. Then, he sends the lawyer a bill for $180 for 45 minutes work.  The lawyer was outraged - and he calls the plumber on the phone.  "What in the world is going on?," he says, " I don't charge $250 per hour."  "Well," said the plumber, "neither did I when I practiced law."

The joke, Scott said, shines a light on a perception that there are too many lawyers. His response to this complaint:  "there may be too many lawyers, but there aren't too many good lawyers."

Data from the past two decades demonstrated, he noted, an increase in "negative [public] perceptions ... that lawyers lack care and compassion for others ... that lawyers are greedy," and "that lawyers are rapacious, they will do anything to win."

To shed light on the perception of lawyers as uncaring he told this joke:

A man is on his death bed and he summons his three best friends, a minister, an accountant and a lawyer.  "Some years ago," the man says, "I lent each of you $5,000."  Each friend nodded in agreement. "All I need so as to die in peace," he says, "is the knowledge that each of you will repay that obligation when I die."  Each of his friends solemnly promises to do so.  Shortly thereafter, the man did die and his three friends all came to his funeral.  One by one they approached the casket.  First, came the minister and he laid $4,000 in cash on the casket and he said, "Dear friend.  I promised to repay the full $5,000, but I know you will understand because I gave the remaining $1,000 to the poor." Then came the accountant.  He placed $3,000 cash on the casket and he said, "Dear friend, I promised to repay the full $5,000 but I  know you will understand.  You owed me $2,000 and so I offset your debt against mine." Finally, the lawyer approached the casket.  He said, "Dear friend, I apologize for the others. I intend to fulfill my obligation in full.  Here is my check for $5,000, payable to you."

Scott commented, after the audience's laughter subsided, that "lawyers like this joke" for "it reveals the craft and gamesmanship of lawyering." But, he added, it also illustrated a hard truth. Most lawyers, "if given the choice we prefer to be seen as clever..., rather than be seen as dull and reliable."

He began his examination of the second perception, that lawyers are greedy,with this joke:

"Before I take your case," said the lawyer, "you will have to give me a $200 retainer." "All right," agreed the client, and he handed the lawyer $200 in cash.  "Thank you," the lawyer replied as he pocketed the cash, "This entitles you to two questions."  The client was outraged:  "What! $200 for just two questions!  Isn't that awfully high?" "Yes, I suppose it is," said the lawyer.  "Now, what's your second question?"

Scott noted that this perception persisted despite evidence, for example, that lawyers are "more philanthropic than any other professional group." 

Perceptions of lawyers as uncaring and avaricious were facets, he said, of a third and perhaps more damaging appraisal: that lawyers are "rapacious." And, with a knowing look, he paused and then said, "Here come the shark jokes."

 A lawyer and his wife were taking an ocean cruise.  A storm hit the ship and the lawyer fell overboard.  The situation looked perilous; but then, just as the lawyer was about to drown, eight sharks appeared out of nowhere and  formed a two-lane escort for the lawyer and helped him all the way back to the ship.  "It was a miracle," the lawyer told his wife as he was hauled back on deck.  "No dear," she replied, "Just professional courtesy."

This perception that lawyers are devoted to winning at all costs, he told the audience, was in part the fault of the public. While the public appreciates lawyers' dedication to their clients' interests, they condemn them "when they are seeking to satisfy the interests of the other side."

To effectively counter these misperceptions, Scott urged graduates to "adopt as a role model the lawyer who promotes the public trust by the manner in which he or she practices law. ...One who takes the time to educate her client about the nature of the legal process, and the reasons for its complexity and uncertainty."

The lawyer who "practices as a public citizen," he said, embraces "a broader understanding of what it means to lead a professional life." He urged the graduates to recognize that "even in the performance of routine tasks, a good lawyer can and does promote the public trust. ... I ask each of you to nurture within yourself this ideal of the citizen lawyer."

"...Simply by observation you have learned from your favorite teachers ...some of the qualities of character that sustain a professional life. This mentoring began in law school, but it must continue in practice."

He concluded by sharing a motto he much admired,  "each one teach one," and urged the fledgling lawyers to live up to their professional responsibility and thus become role models for others in the profession.

"The profession you are entering is indeed an honorable calling and it is one that demands your full allegiance. And so, the next time someone asks you 'Can you be trusted?'  I hope each of you will say, simply, 'Yes.''"