Why Professionalism Matters ~ By Richard L. Gabriel

Chief Justice Nancy E. Rice, CBA President Loren M. Brown, Dean Philip J. Weiser of the University of Colorado Law School and Dean Martin J. Katz of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law have once again proclaimed October to be Legal Professionalism Month in the State of Colorado. This year’s Professionalism Month theme is “Why Professionalism Matters.” After defining “professionalism,” this article will seek to highlight some of the many reasons why professionalism does indeed matter.

What is Professionalism?

Recognizing that Colorado lawyers may not have a shared understanding of the meaning of “professionalism,” the CBA/DBA Professionalism Coordinating Council (PCC) recently adopted the following definition:

Professionalism is conduct reflecting the values embodied in the Colorado Attorney Oath of Admission, the Colorado Principles of Professionalism, and the Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct. These values require attorneys always to act competently, civilly and with integrity and to commit themselves to the public good and to furthering the interests of justice.

This definition captures the three key elements of professionalism. First, professionalism is a form of conduct. Second, this conduct reflects certain values to which all attorneys have subscribed and that are broader than the attorneys’ ethical obligations. Third, professionalism encompasses duties owed to the bench, to clients, to other lawyers and to the public, including the duty to further the public good and the interests of justice.

Why Does Professionalism Matter?

The foregoing definition promotes a shared understanding of what professionalism is, but it does not explain why a shared understanding is important or why professionalism matters. After all, clients want to “win,” and there is a perception that the most “zealous” (as in “aggressive”) advocate usually prevails. Most attorneys can probably cite an example in which so-called “Rambo” or “scorched earth” tactics worked. Practical experience, however, shows that such tactics rarely succeed and that professional conduct is far more beneficial in the long run. While the advantages and benefits of professionalism in the practice of law are innumerable, the following list aims to highlight a few key points:

  • Most (if not all) lawyers want to be part of an esteemed profession. Again, it is human nature to want to feel good about what one is doing, both personally and professionally. Professional behavior begets public esteem of the legal community, and such esteem works to the benefit of all lawyers in that community.
  • Honor and integrity matter. Most people try to act with honor and integrity in their personal and professional dealings with others. Human nature makes people want to feel good about themselves. It fills them with the hope that others will respect them and hold them in high regard. Lawyers are no different, and those who have earned reputations for always acting honorably and with integrity tend to be the most respected — as well as the most successful — lawyers in their communities.
  • Being held in high regard, both personally and by association with a respected legal community, promotes a high level of personal satisfaction and fulfillment in the practice of law. This, in turn, heralds a long and happy career. In contrast, lawyers who do not find personal satisfaction and fulfillment in their practices are often hard-pressed to justify the long hours, many challenges and frequent stresses that come with practicing law at a high level. To these lawyers, burnout tends to come early in their careers.
  • Practicing professionally in a legal environment in which lawyers have committed themselves to a shared concept of professionalism promotes a better quality of life. Practicing law is difficult enough. A professional environment in which lawyers fight the battles that need to be fought and then leave those battles in the courtroom or at the negotiating table is productive and healthy. It is also a healthy and productive way to do business. Conversely, unprofessional conduct results in needless friction and tangential disputes that do not advance the client’s interests but that ultimately take a harsh toll on counsel. The energy expended in dealing with such unprofessional behavior and with lawyers who take on their clients’ emotional battles as their own only increases the stresses of an already difficult job and is often damaging to one’s personal health and well-being. In this regard, Tranio’s advice to Hortensio in Act One, Scene Two of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is counsel well-taken: “Do as adversaries do in law. Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.”
  • Professionalism in the practice of law gets results and is good for business. Acting professionally in a courtroom establishes a lawyer’s credibility with judges and jurors alike, and such credibility tends to produce good results. Likewise, acting professionally with opponents establishes credibility in and among the bar. The most professional and successful lawyers know that good relationships with opposing counsel promote the successful and efficient resolution of disputes and often result in enthusiastic referrals of new business, both of which promote a successful practice in the long-term. And acting professionally with and in the presence of clients engenders credibility, strengthens trust and fosters respect because such behavior not only tends to produce good results but also creates an impression of calm and control that secures the clients’ confidence. Such characteristics lend themselves well to long-lasting and mutually beneficial client relationships, a fact that I previously discussed in my article titled “Professionalism in Today’s Competitive Legal Market: Why It’s in Everyone’s Interest,” which appeared in the June 2010 issue of The Colorado Lawyer.
  • Finally, the public benefits when lawyers act professionally because disputes tend to get resolved more efficiently and economically. This, in turn, enures to the benefit of those who must seek the assistance of counsel to help them resolve their disputes, thereby breeding trust and confidence in our system and methods of dispute resolution.


Few would dispute that the practice of law can be difficult, demanding and stressful, especially as the legal environment and legal marketplace have become increasingly competitive and complex. Particularly in this context, professionalism matters, not only to assure professional success, but, as important, to assure both individual lawyers’ long-term satisfaction, fulfillment and well-being in the practice of law and the public’s trust and confidence in the legal profession’s ability to serve its clients well and in an efficient and economical way. Indeed, it may matter more now than ever. D

Richard Gabriel




Richard L. Gabriel is a justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. He is also a member of the CBA/DBA Joint Professionalism Coordinating Council and the Professionalism Working Group of the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professional Development. He can be reached at richard.gabriel@judicial.state.co.us.