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High court endorses ‘Principles of Professionalism’

The Supreme Court of Virginia has endorsed Principles of Professionalism that their proponents believe “express the ideals of courtesy to which Virginia lawyers should aspire.”

The project was championed by former Virginia Bar Association President William R. Van Buren of Norfolk, who appointed a commission to draft them.

Thomas E. Spahn, a legal ethics authority in the McLean office of McGuireWoods LLP, is chairman of the commission and the principal draftsman of the principles. The commission includes some of the state’s most prominent attorneys in addition to judges and designated representatives from state bar organizations.

The principles are designed to serve as a teaching tool for law students and new attorneys, a guide and reference for practicing lawyers and as a public statement of the importance Virginia lawyers attach to professional integrity and civility.

Spahn said about 15 states have adopted similar aspirational statements, but most of those tend to be closer to a Code of Professional Responsibility than the two-page document endorsed by the Supreme Court.

The Virginia principles include a preamble, which says, “Without losing sight of what lawyers do for their clients and for the public, lawyers should also focus on how they perform their duties.”

Written in the first person, the principles include categories covering conduct toward clients, opposing counsel, courts and other institutions and “everyone with whom I deal.”

Most of them are general, such as an admonition to “avoid all bigotry, discrimination, or prejudice,” while others are specific, such as a pledge to “notify opposing counsel of any schedule changes as soon as possible.”

The commission’s report describing the principles emphasizes that they “serve merely as an expression of ideals to which each lawyer should aspire, and shall not be referenced or utilized in any manner in connection with the disciplinary rules and proceedings applicable to Virginia lawyers.”

A letter from Chief Justice Leroy Rountree Hassell endorsing the principles says they “articulate standards of civility to which all Virginia lawyers should aspire. The Principles of Professionalism shall not serve as a basis for disciplinary action or for civil liability. We encourage the widest possible dissemination of these principles.”

The commission is scheduled to meet next month to discuss ways of promoting the principles.

Principles of Professionalism for Virginia lawyers


Virginia can take special pride in the important role its lawyers have played in American history. From Thomas Jefferson to Oliver Hill, Virginia lawyers have epitomized our profession’s highest ideals. Without losing sight of what lawyers do for their clients and for the public, lawyers should also focus on how they perform their duties. In their very first professional act, all Virginia lawyers pledge to demean themselves “professionally and courteously.” Lawyers help their clients, the institutions with which they deal and themselves when they treat everyone with respect and courtesy. These Principles of Professionalism serve as a reminder of how Virginia lawyers have acted in the past and should act in the future.


In my conduct toward everyone with whom I deal, I should:
• Remember that I am part of a self-governing profession, and that my actions and demeanor reflect upon my profession.
• Act at all times with professional integrity, so that others will know that my word is my bond.
• Avoid all bigotry, discrimination, or prejudice.
• Treat everyone as I want to be treated – with respect and courtesy.
• Act as a mentor for less experienced lawyers and as a role model for future generations of lawyers.
• Contribute my skills, knowledge and influence in the service of my community.
• Encourage those I supervise to act with the same professionalism to which I aspire.

In my conduct toward my clients, I should:
• Act with diligence and dedication – tempered with, but never compromised by, my professional conduct toward others.
• Act with respect and courtesy.
• Explain to clients that my courteous conduct toward to others does not reflect a lack of zeal in advancing their interests, but rather is more likely to successfully advance their interests.

In my conduct toward courts and other institutions with which I deal, I should:
• Treat all judges and court personnel with respect and courtesy.
• Be punctual in attending all court appearances and other scheduled events.
• Avoid any conduct that offends the dignity or decorum of any courts or other institutions, such as inappropriate displays of emotion or unbecoming language directed at the courts or any other participants.
• Explain to my clients that they should also act with respect and courtesy when dealing with courts and other institutions.
In my conduct toward opposing counsel, I should:
• Treat both opposing counsel and their staff with respect and courtesy.
• Avoid ad hominem attacks, recognizing that in nearly every situation opposing lawyers are simply serving their clients as I am trying to serve my clients.
• Avoid reciprocating any unprofessional conduct by opposing counsel, explaining to my clients that such behavior harms rather than advances the client’s interests.
• Cooperate as much as possible on procedural and logistical matters, so that the clients’ and lawyers’ efforts can be directed toward the substance of disputes or disagreements.
• Cooperate in scheduling and discovery, negations, meetings, closing, hearings or other litigation or transactional events, accommodating opposing counsels’ schedules whenever possible.
• Agree whenever possible to opposing counsels reasonable requests for extensions of time that are consistent with my primary duties to advance my client’s interests.
• Notify opposing counsel of any schedule changes as soon as possible.
• Return telephone calls, e-mails and other communications as promptly as I can, even if we disagree about the subject matter of the communication, resolving to disagree without being disagreeable.
• Be punctual in attending all scheduled events.
• Resist being affected by any ill feelings opposing clients may have toward each other, remembering that any conflict is between the clients and not between the lawyers.

Virginia Bar Association Commission on Professionalism

McLean lawyer Thomas E. Spahn of McGuireWoods LLP is chair of the VBA’s Commission on Professionalism. Other members include:

• David N. Anthony, Kaufman & Canoles PC, Richmond.
• Former Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, now director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
• Reginald Barley, Old Dominion Bar Association, Richmond.
• Irving M. Blank, ParisBlank LLP, Richmond.
• U.S. Magistrate Judge B. Waugh Crigler, Charlottesville.
• General District Judge Joel C. Cunningham, Halifax.
• Patricia K. Epps, Hunton & Williams LLP, Richmond.
• Cheshire I’Anson Eveleigh, Wolcott Rivers Gates PC, Virginia Beach.
• H. Duncan Garnett Jr., Virginia Trial Lawyers Association; Patten, Wornom, Hatten & Diamonstein, Newport News.
• Robert J. Grey Jr., past president, American Bar Association; Hunton & Williams LLP, Richmond.
• Michael N. Herring, Commonwealth’s Attorney, Richmond.
• Manuel E. Leiva, Hispanic Bar Association of Virginia, Fairfax.
• Virginia Supreme Court Justice Donald W. Lemons, Richmond.
• Heman A. Marshall III, Woods Rogers PLC, Roanoke.
• Dana D. McDaniel, Virginia State Bar; Spotts Fain PC, Richmond.
• Howard C. McElroy, McElroy, Hodges & Fields, Abingdon.
• Martha W. Medley, Daniel, Medley & Kirby PC, Danville.
• C. Kailani Memmer, Virginia Women Attorneys Association; Guynn, Memmer & Dillon PC, Salem.
• Fairfax Circuit Judge R. Terrence Ney, Fairfax.
• Anita O. Poston, Vandeventer Black LLP, Norfolk.
• Rodney A. Smolla, dean of the Washington and Lee University School of Law, Lexington.
• Phillip C. Stone, president of Bridgewater College, Bridgewater.
• Frank A. Thomas III, Thomas & Gregg PLC, Orange.
• Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Judge Winship C. Tower, Virginia Beach.
• John M. Tran, Asian Pacific American Bar Association; DiMuroGinsberg PC, Alexandria.
• William R.Van Buren III, Kaufman & Canoles, PC, Norfolk.
• Stanley Wellman, Virginia Association of Defense Attorneys; Harman, Claytor, Corrigan & Wellman, Richmond.

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