While the words themselves may be easily spoken, the
significance of their practical application in your days ahead as an
attorney should be considered with deliberation before you voice
them today. They offer guidance and they demand responsibility at
the same time. You should not recite the words of this oath unless
you truly intend to live up to what they will require of you.
As Judge Newell Jennings said in his address to the
candidates for admission to the Connecticut Bar in 1933:
"The very fact of your taking this oath sets its
mark upon you. Its character, while not perhaps unique, is certainly
exceptional. If you want to open a delicatessen store you do not
have to make oath that your butter will be 16 ounces to the pound
and your vinegar two pints to the quart. If you decide to operate a
taxicab you make no promises whatever. But you may not become a
member of the bar without taking this oath. Furthermore, you take
the oath voluntarily. No one has required you to become a lawyer.
Plenty of lines of activity were open to you which involved no
obligation of this character....This being so, you should take it,
not only without any mental reservations whatever, but with the
sincere and earnest intention to strive to conform to all its
provisions in every particular. It calls for active, not passive,
As I reflect on the words of Judge Jennings, I am
reminded of the timeless mandate and current relevance of the charge
given to those who entered our noble profession so many years ago.
The very fact of its continued relevance today suggests that
profound and universal truths lurk beneath the simplicity of the
words themselves. For example, in the words of Judge Jennings,
"active, not passive, compliance" to this oath is essential, and
active compliance would suggest that aspiring to do justice is
simply not enough. You must act on your worthy aspirations, or they
mean little in this profession.
As we seek today to find practical guidance in the
words of the oath, we cannot overlook the underlying notions of
honesty, character and fidelity that are apparent throughout the
words of the oath.
In 1891 Chief Justice Andrews wrote the following in
a case entitled Fairfield County Bar v. Howard W. Taylor:
"It is not enough for an attorney that he be honest. He must be
that, and more. He must be believed to be honest. It is absolutely
essential to the usefulness of an attorney that he be entitled to
the confidence of the community wherein he practices...But...if once
the practice becomes to him a mere 'brawl for hire', or a system of
legalized plunder where craft and not conscience is the rule, and
where falsehood and not truth is the means by which to gain his end,
then he has forfeited all right to be an officer in any court of
justice or to be numbered among the members of an honorable
We can take from these words the practical lesson
that the dividend of honesty is a respected and honorable
reputation. As Chief Justice Baldwin noted in 1906 in Matthew
O'Brien's Petition for Admission to the Bar:
"Character, so far as it can be judged by men, rests on
opinion." The opinion of your fellow attorneys and the community as
a whole should, therefore, be valued and safeguarded from tarnish.
The notion of fidelity or faithfulness has its
rightful role in the words you are about to repeat, as you will
attest - just as many before you have attested - "that you will
exercise the office of attorney faithfully, to both your client and
the court...". In exercising your new office as an attorney, you
will be faced at times with the practical dilemma of balancing split
loyalties. You will have an obligation to represent your client
zealously, while at the same time, your oath requires you to be
faithful to the court. When these obligations appear to collide,
where will you turn for guidance?
Even the most experienced of attorneys wrestle with
ethical dilemmas. Those who successfully negotiate the choppy waters
of such dilemmas often do so because they have both the sound
judgment to seek the counsel of colleagues along with the wisdom to
seek the inner truth of personal conscience.
Because you are a member of an honored profession,
you do not have to rely solely on your legal education and your
inner instincts when faced with the many issues that will give you
pause as you seek to comply with the oath that you are about to
take. Instead, you have available to you professional mentors and
other resources that will help you to chart a course that will lead
you safely through these sometimes turbulent waters.
Make use of your bar association's committee on
professional ethics, for example, and after you have consulted those
counselors whom you respect, step back and be contemplative before
you act. As William Shakespeare said, "To thine own self be true,
and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be
false to any man."
You may wonder why so many of the quotations I have
used in these remarks are from speakers or writers that lived and
wrote many years ago. I have done so to illustrate to you the
timeless relevance of the words and precepts of the oath, as well as
the unchanged challenge of putting the words into practice.
I would be remiss in my message to you today if I
left you thinking that the practice of law is continually fraught
with the moral dilemmas and ethical conundrums about which I have
just spoken. You should look forward to the joy and satisfaction
that you will experience through helping your clients, often in
times of great difficulty in their lives, to find order in chaos or
to experience justice in the complexities of our legal system. You
will also find great pleasure in mentoring new attorneys, like
yourselves, and in working collegially with your fellow attorneys to
find solutions and to reach just settlements. You are privileged
today to become an integral part of a time-honored profession,
steeped in worthy traditions which you must strive to maintain, so
that those who follow you will understand from your example what it
means in practical terms to comply actively with the words and the
spirit of the oath that you are about to take.
I extend to you, on behalf of the Justices of the
Supreme Court and the men and women on the Judicial Branch our
sincerest congratulations and best wishes.