Maintaining the highest ethical standard is as important for municipal attorneys as effective writing and speaking. Naturally, your attorney must master the law and communicate effectively. However, unless he or she holds himself to the highest ethical standards, any credibility achieved through competence will be lost.
A municipal attorney will interact with judges, state agencies, public bodies, and other lawyers. All will have had mixed experiences with lawyers ranging from the less than honorable to those whose word you could take “to the bank.” When a judge, state agency or other lawyer first interacts with your lawyer, no one will know what to make of him or her. It is therefore important that your attorney build trust and credibility from day one because, as your representative, the way your attorney interacts with these groups will impact on how your municipality is perceived. Indeed, every interaction of your attorney with others represents an opportunity to put the municipality in the most favorable light.
Every time your lawyer gives advice to your town, there is every possibility that the advice will put some members of the governing body in favorable light and others in poor light, including those who decide whether the attorney keeps his or her job. However, your attorney’s job is not to tell you what he thinks you want to hear, but to tell you what you need to hear and to allow you to decide whether to follow that advice. An attorney that gives you straight advice—regardless of who it helps or hurts—is more valuable to you than an attorney that tries to pull punches for fear that you will find the advice distasteful.
With judges and other public bodies before which your attorney appears, the attorney can’t begin building trust soon enough. Your attorney should always pay special attention to the credibility of the positions taken on your behalf. One way for an attorney to gauge the credibility of a proposed position is for the attorney to imagine him or herself serving as the judge’s law clerk or the attorney for the agency as the case may be. If your attorney would not recommend granting the relief sought as the clerk or agency’s counsel, then your attorney should adjust the relief it seeks on your behalf. Your attorney serves you best by being judicious and not overreaching. Similarly, your attorney serves you best by recognizing and directly addressing the merits of the adversary’s position. If your attorney is so blinded by the cause that he or she can’t accept the possibility that the adversary might have some good points, your attorney will be less effective.
With others lawyers, more often than not, your attorney will find himself or herself negotiating a settlement as both sides seek to manage their risks. Your attorney’s reputation for trustworthiness may well prove indispensable in closing any deal.
Michael A. Pane, who authored New Jersey Municipal Practice Series, embodied all the principles described in this article. He was as ethical as he was learned. He told clients, lawyers and anyone who asked, the bottom line. There was no guise. Only straightforward, reliable, honest advice. He earned such a reputation that lawyers throughout the state would routinely sought out his counsel. Indeed, other lawyers were a major part of his client base. He proved that holding yourself to the highest ethical standard was not just good for the soul. It was good for business.
In closing, your attorney plays a critical role in providing legal guidance and effectively protecting the interests of your community. You want your attorney to be as credible as possible. That requires as much attention to ethics as it does to other attributes.
Mr. Surenian is the 2009 winner of the Michael A. Pane award which is presented annually “to a professional working in local government who has exemplified the highest standards of ethics and whose work has significantly enhanced the integrity of local government.”