Stoicism and A Lawyer’s Creed

With my previous posts, I’ve set a little groundwork. But I shouldn’t call this blog Stoic Lawyer without coming around to write about lawyers and the law. I have a firm commitment (for ethical and financial reasons) to not using Stoic Lawyer as a funnel for free legal advice. Instead, I want to explore how being a better Stoic can make me a better lawyer and vice versa. To start that exploration, I should start by defining what I think it means to be a good Stoic and a good lawyer.

Stoicism originally developed in Athens at the end of the 4th century before the Common Era. Like the other major schools of philosophy in that period, Epicureanism and Cynicism, Stoicism was concerned with the question of happiness.

Greek Philosophers

L to R - Sokrates, Antisthenes, Chrysippos, Epikouros

The early Stoics developed their philosophy around the theory that happiness could only exist for a person who had attained a state of perfect virtue through the development of wisdom. The Stoic view of virtue was absolute and admitted of no degrees; one either had attained perfect wisdom about what is Good or one had not.

The practical effect of that absolutism is that most things in life are not Good because they can be used for either good or bad purposes. They can be used with wisdom (that is, through a rationality which is in accordance with the rationality of the Universe) or they can be used contrary to right reason. The Stoics considered it misleading to speak about such things as good or bad, but held that one should instead consider them merely preferable or not preferable. The most common examples of such things are wealth/poverty, liberty/bondage, lack of pain/pain. The virtuous person should be perfectly capable of being wise and virtuous in any of those conditions, without being rendered any less wise by poverty, slavery, or pain, but would prefer wealth, liberty, and the lack of pain without seeking them out at the expense of wisdom. In agreement with that, the Stoics believed that all people were equally capable of developing virtue, whether they were a king or a slave and that, regardless of whether a person were a king or a slave, one should seek to become an excellent and virtuous king or slave.

Turning to the law, then, the Stoics would consider being a lawyer equal to any other profession. The skills of a lawyer can be used for good or bad purposes, and being a lawyer itself has its positive and negative aspects. The important thing, then, would be for a Stoic lawyer to make the most of it and become the best lawyer he or she could be.

To stop there, however, would be weaselly. One certainly cannot say, “I’ll be the best I can be” without setting out an idea of what one is striving for. Thankfully, I practice law in Ohio, where the Supreme Court of Ohio has taken its role in providing leadership to the bar seriously and published a manual of  “Professional Ideals for Ohio Lawyers and Judges.”  Of all the selections in that manual, the most succinct and inspirational is A Lawyer’s Creed.

I won’t reproduce the entire creed here. In summary, the creed takes the form of a pledge. It is written in first person and sets out the expectations a lawyer should have for his or her own conduct in dealing with different people.

  • To clients – The lawyer’s creed promises “loyalty, confidentiality, competence, diligence, and my best judgment.”
  • To opponents  – The lawyer’s creed promises “fairness, integrity, and civility.”
  • To courts and court staff – The lawyer’s creed promises “respect, candor, and courtesy.”
  • To the public – The lawyer’s creed promises service and dedication to promoting the common good and to improving the legal system

As a whole, A Lawyer’s Creed promotes the idea that lawyers can be effective and successful without being argumentative, petty, and disrespectful. In short, the creed stands for the aspiration to avoid being the caricature found in poorly-written fiction and lawyer jokes.

Honore Daumier, "The Opposing Lawyers," 19th Cent.

Viewed in the light of Stoicism, the creed offers inspiration and guidance to the Stoic Lawyer. To the Stoic, virtue largely consists of the ability to exercise wisdom in any circumstances, regardless of the pressures applied. The creed suggests what qualities a good lawyer must have under a variety of circumstances and pressures. Key to the spirit of the creed is the idea that a good lawyer must bear up under the pressures exerted by clients, opponents, courts, and society and remain dedicated to the ideals of loyalty, unclouded judgment, fairness, and integrity. In so doing, the lawyer must recall the special trust placed in her or him as an officer of the court and a guardian of the justice system.

I believe the virtues and passions identified by Zeno can assist today’s lawyers to follow the creed and find success. Friday’s post will introduce the virtues and passions and discuss them as they relate to lawyers and the practice of law.

Carving on the east face of the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center


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