Using Legal Skills in Unexpected Ways: How Being a Citizen Lawyer Can Better the Community and the Profession

The Bencher—July/August 2019

By Judge David W. Lannetti and Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire

When we attended law school—and suffered through the Socratic method, endless reading, and extensive writing—we no doubt had the goal of acquiring the skills that would develop us into successful attorneys. What many lawyers subsequently realize is that these same abilities also allow us to contribute to society in non-traditional ways, leading us to become effective and productive citizens.

Whether providing pro bono legal services, governing in elected office, taking leadership roles in professional or industry-related associations, serving on nonprofit boards, or volunteering with community organizations, a legal education is a proven asset. Simply stated, our legal training enables us to become “citizen lawyers.” Recognizing and embracing this fact permits us to contribute to the common good, better society, and positively affect the lives of others. Additionally, when we were licensed to practice law, we did not simply sign up for a way to make a living; we voluntarily entered a profession, which calls us to higher service.

The Citizen-Lawyer Concept

The notion of lawyers using their skills in public service is at least as old as our nation. George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and delegate to the Constitutional Convention, was recruited by Thomas Jefferson in 1779 to occupy the first chair of law in America at the College of William & Mary. A quote by Wythe inscribed at the base of a statue of him and John Marshall at William & Mary Law School’s entrance describes his vision and what he saw as the role of the institution and its patrons: “Here we will form such characters as may be useful in the National Councils of our country.” And so the concept of the citizen lawyer was born.

Yale University law professor Robert Gordon defines a citizen lawyer as “a lawyer who acts in a significant part of his or her professional life with some plausible vision of the public good and the general welfare in mind.” He goes on to say that attorneys who fill this role “devote time and effort to public ends and values: the service of the Republic, their communities, the ideal of the rule of law, and reforms to enhance the law’s efficiency, fairness, and accessibility.” Taylor Reveley, former dean of the William & Mary Law School and former president of the College of William & Mary, has an even more succinct definition of citizen lawyers: “lawyers who will use at least a part of their legal training and experience to work for the common good.” Reveley notes that there are compelling reasons why we should strive to become citizen lawyers. First, American identity and government depend on the rule of law and the roles lawyers play, making our involvement necessary. Second, because of the attributes lawyers possess, we are ideally able to lead for the larger good. And third, we should respond gratefully to the general public for its support of our profession—through the establishment of a governmental structure dependent on lawyers—by providing what Reveley calls “the ‘rent’ we pay for public subsidy and protection of the legal profession.”

The citizen-lawyer concept is alive and well at law schools around the country. But the concept should be more than an aspirational academic goal. And it is not until after law school—when the demands are high and time is scarce—that the citizen-lawyer lifestyle is put to the test.

Skills and Attributes of a Citizen Lawyer

Among other things, a citizen lawyer has been defined as a lawyer who represents the government; a lawyer who serves full- or part-time as a legislator or public administrator; a lawyer working for organizations that challenge injustice; a private lawyer providing pro bono service; or virtually all lawyers, pursuant to the preamble to the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which defines an attorney as “a public citizen having special responsibilities for the quality of justice.” There are many career paths that allow lawyers to embody the values of a citizen lawyer within the profession.

Citizen lawyers rely on the skills learned in law school and honed in practice. These include how to read and analyze critically, how to advocate and persuade, how to anticipate and guard against disputes, how to view situations from multiple perspectives, how to focus more on facts and logic and less on emotions, how to weigh various outcomes, how to draft and review legal documents, and how to negotiate with the goal of creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. We take for granted these problem-solving and analytical abilities because we use them without a second thought, but they should not be underestimated. They can, for instance, help community organizations plan for large events that have many changing components and last-minute crises. And they usually make us good listeners, allowing us to provide comfort to those who are looking for a sounding board, whether through a mentorship program such as a local Boys & Girls Club or on a route for Meals on Wheels.

In short, traditional lawyering skills can be put to use in non-traditional ways, which can make a positive difference both within our profession and in the community at large.

Being a Citizen Lawyer

The good news is that we all have what it takes to be citizen lawyers. It is often said that showing up is the most important factor to success, and this is certainly true for becoming a citizen lawyer. Although we are all over-scheduled—making the “extra” in extracurricular seem like unnecessary work and stress—as lawyers we are uniquely positioned to help others. Armed with legal training, all we need is a willingness to serve and the audacity to take the leap.

Taking its history and ethos to heart, being a citizen lawyer can and should extend beyond our “day jobs.” There are many ways we can use our legal knowledge and skills to live the life of a citizen lawyer outside the office and the courtroom. Knowledge of the law and the legal process can enable us to represent the indigent without pay, helping to narrow the justice gap while bringing fulfillment to our practices. Critical thinking and persuasion can help us run for elected office and then govern effectively. Organizational abilities and logical reasoning can allow us to serve in leadership roles in professional and industry-related associations. Advocacy and dispute resolution skills can ably serve the nonprofit organizations and community groups in which we serve as volunteers and board members.

To be clear, being a citizen lawyer is not about résumé building; rather, it is about personal, professional, and community development, which requires an individualized approach. In selecting professional legal associations and community organizations in which to get involved, look for activities that align with your interests. Otherwise, neither you nor the organization will benefit much. Finding the right match, on the other hand, will promote a sense of purpose and may offer necessary balance to the chaos of everyday practice. Another, perhaps unexpected, benefit of participating in community activities is that it offers a different lens from which to view the world and can assist in putting life and the legal practice in the proper perspective.

The possibilities for serving others are vast, and most attorneys thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to use their legal skills in non-traditional ways, deriving great satisfaction in giving back to their communities and truly making a positive difference.

Preserving the Noble Profession and Enhancing Satisfaction in the Practice of Law

Lawyers occupy an important and respected position in society. After his visit to America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville opined in Democracy in America that lawyers create a “form of public responsibility and accountability that…help[s] preserve the blessings of democracy without allowing its untrammeled vices.” By acting as citizen lawyers, we can extend our influence while acting as role models for others.

Being a good steward of society as a citizen lawyer also has both inward and outward benefits. Reveley noted that viewing the legal profession as a noble calling—and responding to that calling—leads to happiness, satisfaction, pride, and a sense of purpose. According to Reveley, the decision to become a citizen lawyer ultimately comes down to “whether being a lawyer is simply a way to make a living or also a calling. Whether a lawyer teaches, practices, or judges, is he willing to work to leave the law better than he found it? Using legal training and experience, is a lawyer willing to work to make a difference for the better in the life of the entity that pays her salary, and in the lives of her community, state, nation, and even world?”

In times when it seems that subjective contentment with practicing law is at an all-time low, and stress and depression are at an all-time high, it is incumbent on us all to look for ways in which we can improve the profession and our relationship with it. One way to enhance professional satisfaction is to tweak traditional notions of balance by breaking preconceived barriers of what it means to be a “successful” attorney and what it means to be a “good citizen.” By combining these concepts and using our learned skills in unexpected and perhaps unconventional ways, we can enhance the profession and maintain the honorable nature of a legal calling.

In setting forth on this career-long path to becoming and serving as citizen lawyers (and judges), may we unite to make a positive difference in our communities, serve the public good, and improve society and the profession along the way.

Judge David W. Lannetti is a Circuit Court Judge in Norfolk, Virginia (Virginia’s 4th Judicial Circuit), as well as an adjunct professor at both William & Mary and Regent University schools of law. Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire is an attorney at Vandeventer Black LLP in Norfolk, Virginia. Both are executive committee members of the James Kent American Inn of Court. The views advanced in this article are those of the authors alone and should not be mistaken for the official views of the Norfolk Circuit Court or Vandeventer Black LLP.

© 2019 Judge David W. Lannetti and Jennifer L. Eaton, Esquire. This article was originally published in the July/August 2019 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.