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From the President: First, Do No Harm

What The Hippocratic Oath Has to Teach Lawyers

dan-dewoskin-new-photoby Daniel DeWoskin
President, DeKalb Bar Association

At our October DeKalb Bar meeting, Gov. Roy Barnes suggested that our code as lawyers should begin something like the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.” Actually, these words do not appear in the oath itself, but instead something to the effect of “Also, I will, according to my ability and judgment, prescribe a regimen for the health of the sick; but I will utterly reject harm and mischief.” Gov. Barnes’ point was not lost on me despite my clarification here. As lawyers, we have an obligation to conduct ourselves in accordance with a code of ethics. We should not allow ourselves to stop there.

By this, I mean that we have opportunities throughout our days, weeks, months, and years to bring light to our communities. These do not have to be grand measures, although those can be magnificent and life-changing events for those who benefit from them. We do not have to take on pro bono cases that will deprive us of countless hours, although I salute those who do take on those very projects. Instead, we can simply answer some calls that we might otherwise not take. We can listen to prospective clients who we very early on know in our heads are not prospective clients. We can behave in such a way that people are, unfortunately, not accustomed to thinking that lawyers behave.

The five minutes that we can somehow spare for someone on the phone to either listen or give some slight counsel, to point them in the right direction, will prove more valuable than we might have otherwise expected.”

So often, we collectively fit the negative stereotype that people have for attorneys because they are looking for our behavior to comport with their expectations. When we go out of our way to show them something different, some people will think we are one of the “good ones,” but it is always a step toward betterment for others, ourselves, and our collective reputation as members of the Bar.

Every morning, the last thing I say to my children is “Do something nice for someone today.” They roll their eyes and groan, but we speak about it in the evening. I want them to know that they do not have to save someone from a burning building to make good on my request. They need only compliment someone, help carry something, or engage in the smallest gesture that makes someone else’s day just a little bit better. It is not often when I ask at night that they can recall a specific thing that they did that fits the bill, but when they do, there is genuine excitement in telling me about it.

For myself, I find it exciting, too, when I can tell them about how I may have helped someone out. It is especially important to me when they have the opportunity to see me help lift someone else’s luggage into the overhead compartment on an airplane or even hold open a door. I have an obligation to raise these children to be good, smart, considerate human beings. Likewise, we as attorneys have an obligation to our profession and the overall reputation of our profession. It is something that should make us proud. When I hear someone say, “He is a lawyer, but he is a nice guy,” I see little humor in it. When we laugh at such remarks or even just shrug them off, we reinforce the idea that this is acceptable to us. It should not be.

Little gestures. I reiterate that because I have seen how much relief and peace of mind they can bring. I volunteer with many other generous and knowledgeable attorneys who participate in the DeKalb Volunteer Lawyers Foundation’s Debt Collection Consumer Education Clinic. There, we see people who have questions about all sorts of debt collection issues, from simple dunning calls to lawsuits, from car repossessions to home foreclosures. We also see people who have strolled in to try to learn how to go about collecting a debt. Regardless of what he or she is there to discuss, every person gets to have a one-on-one meeting with an attorney.

These meetings are tremendously helpful for some people. There are people we are able to help and people for whom there is simply nothing we can do but listen and tell them what we understand to be the situation. What I can say is that when I tell some people that they cannot go to jail for owing money on a credit card debt, even if they lose in court, there are those who look as though I have lifted a ton of bricks off their shoulders. Little gestures and some time to listen.

So, as we work, as we speak with people on the phone who come from all different walks of life, and as we engage the public, we should reject harm and mischief. We should try to see if the five minutes that we can somehow spare for someone on the phone to either listen or give some slight counsel to point them in the right direction will prove more valuable than we might have otherwise expected.

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