Recently I walked by a parking garage in Philadelphia and noticed something that made me smile on a gloomy winter day. A sign announced that the floors of the garage were named after Benjamin Franklin’s 7 personal virtues that he created to define his life, and no doubt hoped would be followed by his fellow American citizens – an aversion to tyranny, compromise, freedom of the press, humility, humor, idealism in foreign policy, and tolerance. Even more telling, I noticed the sign shortly after our country had concluded the most vicious Presidential election in American history (2016), when the nerves of all citizens, both winners and losers in the election, were still raw due to the brutal process of this particular election.
Although I probably had read about the virtues during my school years, they seemed new, fresh, and particularly relevant to our current lives, so I decided to read about Franklin’s thought process in selecting them. Franklin was one of the, if the not the most, interesting and remarkable of America’s founding fathers. He was a man of many talents, skills, interests and knowledge. I will discuss how the legal field impacts on those virtues.
An Aversion to Tyranny– In 1755 when Franklin opposed taxes imposed from England, and most of his fellow colonists did not oppose them, he wrote: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The law presents the only legitimate avenue in which ordinary citizens, within the means at their disposal, can attempt to create change. Of course, citizens can lobby their elected representatives or influence the press to publicize their viewpoints, but this can be a cumbersome and lengthy process. Although the legal process has its own vagaries and expenses, it can potentially allow even a single person to create significant changes based on a court’s decision at some point in the legal process.
Compromise– The legal profession is based on compromise. That is not to say that lawyers do not aggressively pursue their clients’ interest, but in the long run, the legal process would collapse if compromise was not engaged in since over 90% of all matters are usually resolved during the process before or during litigation. Not only is compromise a practical approach, but it encompasses engaging in some of the other virtues mentioned here.
Freedom of the Press– The flow of information and ideas through a free press has long been a hallmark of the legal process. These days the process is more transparent than ever before. Most courts engage in the electronic process, which allows anyone to view the progress of a case, review the documents filed with the court and by the court in that case, and to review the court’s opinion if it is published. Although certain politicians and political movements have an agenda of limiting free press these days, on the other hand, everyone seems to have a viewpoint these days, and feels free to promote it easily through social or print media. It does not appear likely that ideas will stop flowing and opinions, although chilled perhaps, will stop being promoted in the future.
Humility– I don’t think this word is in most lawyers’ vocabularies. It is the nature of the legal profession to favorably compare ourselves with other lawyers. We are encouraged to market and advertise ourselves as being the best of the best. We are encouraged to profile our superlawyer and pre-eminent status through all forms of media. Unfortunately, some of the least skilled lawyers are the ones who resort to the most puffery. Also, unfortunately, people tend to believe such puffery until proven to them otherwise. I don’t know if a lack of humility is necessarily bad in the field of law, so we will live with it.
Humor– Jokes about lawyers appear endless. Although law is a serious profession, the situations that ordinary people often find themselves in can be hilarious. Often the decisions handed down in the legal process can be funny. The actions of lawyers, judges, jurors, and lawyers can be humorous. Unfortunately, the day to day lives of lawyers are usually based on serious situations involving individuals clients, companies, and the government. I believe lawyers try to do the best they can with the situations handed to them, which often leaves them as the brunt of jokes. We can’t all be stand- up comedians, and if you need a lawyer you wouldn’t consult a clown, so it is what it is.
Idealism in Foreign Policy– I recently read an article about the Kansas 40 member Senate not having a single lawyer serving in it. Although many people may applaud this absence of a legal mind, this absence caused a problem because of a statutory requirement that required a lawyer. It surprised me that there were no elected lawyers in that Senate, because politics and law certainly have gone hand in hand throughout American history. Not to say that other professionals do not have ideals and ethics, but I think lawyers have the unique training and perspective of trying to further the common good through their profession, represent their interests intelligently and act ethically while doing so.
Tolerance– America has struggled through and continues to work on the concept of tolerance. Many of the civil rights laws were not enacted until nearly 200 years after America’s creation, and the establishment and consideration and determination of those laws is an ongoing process. Tolerance is under great attack these days, and although we live in a diverse country, that diversity is not equally spread or appreciated throughout our country. It is up to lawyers to make certain that tolerance is adhered to and honored, even in the worst of times.
Tolerance encompasses the other 6 virtues which were endorsed by Franklin, and tolerance is what makes America great and continues to make America great in these turbulent times and in this turbulent world. Let it reign forever, and let lawyers be its crowning glory!