In New York, the law requires that before admitting a person to the bar, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court must be satisfied that he or she "possesses the character and general fitness requisite for an attorney and counsellor-at-law." As such, prospective lawyers have to graduate law school, pass the bar exam and the MPRE (ethics exam), and then submit a lengthy and detailed application to the Committee on Character and Fitness. The Committee itself is a group of attorneys charged with investigating people's backgrounds to determine if they are "fit" to practice law. Dare I say it, the process has been long and vexing, the apex of frustration in my particular case being the time the USPS lost several of my affidavits and my admission was delayed four months. But my file was finally completed and approved, and I attended an orientation and an interview with the Committee last week. This Monday, I was sworn in to the New York Bar in the beautiful Beaux-Arts courthouse on Madison Avenue.
In addition to the requirements I've already mentioned, the New York State Constitution also stipulates that each person admitted to practice law must, upon his or her admission, take a constitutional oath of office in open court, and subscribe the same in a roll or book. My name is now inscribed in the roll of attorneys of the state, and I recited the following oath with about 70 fellow lawyers before the court:
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of attorney and counselor-at-law, according to the best of my ability.
Though many of us have been working as "law clerks" since graduation (that is, working in law but not officially as lawyers), obtaining the license to practice is really the start of the "professional journey" and the beginning of a life-long career. We lawyers tend to be the staid and cynical type, hiding our emotions under professional veneers, but there were plenty of bright smiles and tears of happiness on Monday. I skipped out of the courthouse feeling relieved and empowered (and like others, posed for a picture with the statutes), and broke down in tears later that evening at dinner as I tried to express my gratitude to close friends. I have doubted myself innumerable times along the way, and I continue to wonder whether I will be able to "make a difference" in people's lives with my chosen profession, but I remain hopeful.
There will always be lawyer jokes (how many do you know?) and the nefarious and unethical lawyers that feed them. I still believe, however, that the law is a noble profession, and I try to keep the following from Anthony T. Kronman (Yale Law School) in mind:
"Despite these perennial sources of suspicion and reproach, the American people have asked lawyers since the days of the Revolution to lead the way and to guide them in arranging their affairs, both public and private. Fearing lawyers and even occasionally loathing them, we Americans have also entrusted our lawyers with great powers and responsibilities and made them, to a remarkable degree, the stewards of our republic. Behind all the cynicism and fashionable disgust, behind all the complaints (many of them justified) about the excesses of the adversarial system and the partisan exploitation of loopholes and technicalities, lies this basic fact of trust, the huge trust we have placed in our lawyers."
The day-to-day work of a lawyer, especially a newly minted one, is not always glamorous or exciting - just ask my friends doing endless hours of doc review in windowless basements. But law can be "a profession that engages the whole person, that calls upon all the powers of the soul - perceptual and emotional as well as intellectual - it offers those who enter it the hope of a completeness of engagement in their work. . ." I hope this will be my experience. Finally, Kronman says, "The historical traditions of the law which give the lawyers who work in it a self-conscious sense of their location in a continuing adventure with a past and a future as well as a present, act as a counterweight against the forgetfulness, the obliviousness of time, which characterizes our life today with its rush of transient moments each disconnected from the rest in a contented but timeless present. . ." How true that is.