A Difference in Oaths

Kate Currer Columns, Lawyer 2 Comments

I recently had the privilege of being sworn in as licensed attorney. I was seated next to my brother, a medical doctor, who was blown away by how different my oath was from his.

While each state has a different oath for admission to the bar, each includes some variation of promises: to uphold the Constitution, to be honest to the courts, to keep a client’s confidences secret, to avoid frivolous claims, to uphold the respectability of the profession at large, etc. In speeches before and after the swearing in, the message conveyed was that a lawyer’s reputation is his greatest asset. The focus was how the new lawyers would conduct themselves. This was a weird focus, according to someone who had taken the Hippocratic Oath.

The physician’s oath for practicing medicine is focused on the treatment and care of the patient. Doctors swear to provide the care required for their patients, to treat patients with warmth and sympathy, to provide the same care to all patients regardless of their background, to consider how a course of treatment will affect the patient’s life as a whole, and to approach each case with humbleness, which includes a willingness to ask for help when the doctor does not know the answer.

The focus of the Hippocratic Oath is the patient; the focus of the lawyer’s oath is the lawyer himself. To a physician, this is a sign that lawyers do not care about helping their clients. To me, it just made sense.

The enemy of a medical patient is his own body or illness. There is generally a correct answer about which disease is affecting the patient, even if the course of action may be somewhat debatable among doctors. A rebellious doctor might disagree with his fellow doctors, but he is still fighting the disease in order to help his patient. I still remember an old episode of ER where George Clooney’s character Dr. Ross performs a rapid detox of a crack-addicted baby without the mother’s consent and is punished as a result. In a conflict where a doctor must choose what is best for the patient (treating the patient) and what is best for the doctor (not being punished), society tends to prefer — or at least accept — a doctor who puts the patient before himself. The oath reflects the value of patient care above allegiance to other doctors. I think this is what House is all about.

In contrast, the enemy of a legal client is the law or an opposing party. A lawyer should be a vigorous advocate for his client, just as a doctor should work tirelessly to eradicate disease in his patient. Here is the major difference: sometimes, your client is just going to lose, and there are no tools available to eradicate the impending loss. The only way a lawyer can do anything possible to win a case for his client is by manipulating the tools available to him. A lawyer can fudge or lie about the facts in the case or the law in order to help his client. That power (and the fact that some use that power) is why so many people hate lawyers. And it is a power that doctors do not possess.

While treating a patient’s disease may be the most important thing to a doctor, an honest respect for the law may be the most important thing to a lawyer. A doctor’s tools are medicine and treatment, and intelligent doctors can disagree about which course of action is the best for a patient. The Hippocratic Oath tells doctors that no matter what, you are supposed to do what is best for your patient. A lawyer, on the other hand, must help his client by using only one tool, the law itself. In order to have a consistent, respectable legal system that can withstand the test of time, the law must be the consistent, respected interest for those in the profession. Lawyers can have clients on both sides of every issue, but the law must be the same every time. As such, lawyers must respect the law and facts as given and work within that framework, even if it means losing the case this time around. The only alternative is a race to the bottom, with the legal system collapsing.

Post image from Shutterstock

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