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Judge Elbert Parr Tuttle’s View of a Lawyer’s Professionalism

Posted in Coaching for lawyers

Several times over the last six years, I’ve shared one of my favorite passages from one of my legal heroes, the Hon. Elbert Parr Tuttle.  Judge Tuttle served on the Fifth and Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals from 1954 until his death just a month shy of age 99, in 1996.  He’s remembered as a model attorney and judge, one who represented the absolute best in the profession.

Judge Tuttle was a champion of civil rights, both as a lawyer and a judge and, along with other members of the Fifth Circuit (John Minor Wisdom, John Brown, and Richard Rives) was instrumental in bringing effective desegregation to the South.  (The anecdote at the beginning of this story about Judge Tuttle illustrates not only how he came to play such a role; it also illustrates the power that parental example can have on children, and then children on the world.)  For more on Judge Tuttle’s life and accomplishments, see any of the memorials and articles written about him and read Jack Bass’s phenomenal book Unlikely Heroes.

Judge Tuttle gave a commencement speech at Emory Law School in the 1950s that defines professionalism.  It has informed my understanding of what it means (and what it should mean) to be an attorney.  I make it a habit to read through Judge Tuttle’s speech at least once a year.  It seems particularly appropriate now.  The full speech is not available on the Internet, unfortunately.  But here’s an excerpt, provided by the Washington Realty Group:

The professional man is in essence one who provides service.  But the service he renders is something more than that of the laborer, even the skilled laborer.  It is a service that wells up from the entire complex of his personality.  True, some specialized and highly developed techniques may be included, but their mode of expression is given its deepest meaning by the personality of the practitioner.  In a very real sense his professional service cannot be separate from his personal being.  He has no goods to sell, no land to till.  His only asset is himself.  It turns out that there is no right price for service, for what is a share of a man worth?  If he does not contain the quality of integrity, he is worthless.  If he does, he is priceless. The value is either nothing or it is infinite.

So do not try to set a price on yourselves.  Do not measure out your professional service on an apothecaries’ scale and say, “Only this for so much.”  Do not debase yourselves by equating your souls to what they will bring in the market.  Do not be a miser, hoarding your talents and abilities and knowledge, either among yourselves or in your dealings with your clients…

Rather be reckless and spendthrift, pouring our your talent to all to whom it can be of service!  Throw it away, waste it, and in the spending it will be increased.  Do not keep a watchful eye lest you slip, and give away a little bit of what you might have sold.  Do not censor your thoughts to gain a wide audience.  Like love, talent is only useful in its expenditure, and it is never exhausted.  Certain it is that man must eat; so set what price you must on your service.  But never confuse the performance, which is great, with the compensation, be it money, power, or fame, which is trivial.

…The job is there, you will see it, and your strength is such, as you graduate…that you need not consider what the task will cost you.  It is not enough that you do your duty.  The richness of life lies in the performance which is above and beyond the call of duty.

Elbert Parr Tuttle, Heroism in War and Peace, The Emory University Quarterly.  1957; 13: 129-30.