"Professionalism is never out of date," the president of the American Bar Association (ABA), Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, told graduates of Samford University's Cumberland School of Law Friday, May 18.
"Every day we are reminded that the economy is creating serious consequences and changes for our profession," Robinson said. "One might suspect that as a result, professionalism and such things as fiduciary responsibility and ethics might be subject to compromise in the face of hard and changing economic times such as we have been facing in the past several years.
"That is simply not the case," he stressed. "Fiduciary responsibility and ethics in general are timeless and essential to the continued vitality and success of our legal profession and to your own future success, especially in tough economic times."
Robinson addressed Cumberland's 153 graduates and a crowd of about 1,000 others in Samford's Wright Center.
Senior Katie Garrety of Jackson, Tenn., received the Daniel Austin Brewer Award presented to the student who most exemplifies the professionalism expected of Cumberland lawyers. The award is in memory of the father of retired Cumberland professor and former Alabama governor Albert Brewer.
Robinson, a lawyer for 40 years, also emphasized the value of pro bono work for the young lawyers.
"There is a widespread, erroneous perception that volunteer service in the community and pro bono representation are only for more senior lawyers or at least for professionals whose success is well established," he said. "That notion is just wrong, and it could cost you needed experience and additional job opportunities."
Robinson said pro bono work would expand the lawyers' network of contacts, enhance their legal and time management skills and give them opportunities to try new areas of law.
"Most importantly, pro bono representation will reinforce for you two essential qualities of every great lawyer: leadership and compassion," he said. The ABA leader noted that Alexis de Tocqueville found something in America that he discovered nowhere else in his world travels.
"He called it 'a habit of the heart.' We call it today 'volunteerism.'"
For lawyers, he said, volunteer service, "in addition to our responsibilities to our clients or our employers," is who we are. "Volunteer service is part of our professional DNA."
As a lawyer and as a professional, he said, "you will do well by doing good."
Robinson closed with this thought, which he repeated: "I suggest you ask yourself every day for the rest of your legal career: 'How do I make a positive difference in the lives of those I have the privilege to serve?'"