by Jed S. Rakoff, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of New York; Adjunct Professor, Columbia Law School
*The following is a speech given by the author at the Harvard Law School Conference on Lawyers as Professionals and Citizens on April 10, 2015.
I have read with great interest the brilliant essay on Lawyers as Professionals and Citizens by Ben Heineman, Bill Lee, and David Wilkins that is the subject of the conference, and I want to build my little talk around the fourth ethical responsibility they enunciate in that essay, namely, the responsibility of lawyers to help create a safe, fair, and just society even when legal issues, in the narrow sense, are not directly at stake. I want to discuss that responsibility – which I will refer to here simply as the “Fourth Principle” – as it applies to lawyers and as it applies to judges; and while I recognize that the essay that is the subject of this conference focuses particularly on corporate and economic issues, I want to address this Fourth Principle in terms of other issues, such as war and such as imprisonment.
I was introduced to this Fourth Principle, in effect, as a very junior associate at the New York City firm now known as Debevoise & Plimpton. When I arrived at the firm in 1970, the leader of the firm, Francis T.P. Plimpton, was just completing his two year stint as President of the New York City Bar Association, then known as the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. Although that organization was founded in 1870 for the specific purpose of seeking the removal of corrupt judges beholden to the man called “Boss” Tweed, by the middle of the twentieth century the Association had become a somewhat stuffy “Establishment” enclave, widely perceived (though perhaps unfairly) as subservient to the narrow interests of big-firm corporate lawyers. On paper, Plimpton was more of the same. Educated at Exeter, Amherst, and Harvard Law School, Plimpton could literally trace his Massachusetts forebears back to 1630. And his chief fame as a lawyer consisted of being a highly skilled draftsman of corporate debentures – whatever the heck that is.
But once Plimpton became President of the New York City Bar Association, the real Francis Plimpton emerged: a man of principle and courage, who, more than any other single person, opened that Bar Association to racial and gender diversity, to concern with pro bono representation and public service, and to a focus on broad societal issues. As Sheldon Oliensis, another prominent lawyer of that time, stated, “He [Plimpton] thought that there was no issue on which the Association could not be heard.” In a period when much of the legal establishment was reacting negatively to what it perceived as the lawless excesses of the ‘60s, Plimpton not only embraced a very broad view of the role of the lawyer in society, but also saw that role as one of promoting change and progress.