DOBSON — What do you call more than 50 lawyers and other legal professionals gathered in a room?
That is not the opening line of a joke, but was the setting Friday for a serious-minded visit to Surry County by North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin, who spoke at The Barn at Heritage Farm just outside Dobson. His audience included attorneys, judges and others from Judicial District 17-B, composed of Surry and Stokes counties, who gathered there for a four-hour continuing education seminar.
Martin, not to be confused with the retired NASCAR racer by the same name, spoke on the importance of an honest and ethical legal system to society as well as its practitioners. He said that — contrary to what some might believe, and the jokes — attorneys are necessary to the American way of life.
“I believe lawyers are among the most caring and dedicated of our citizens,” said Martin, who was appointed in 2014 to head the Supreme Court of North Carolina upon the retirement of Chief Justice Sarah Parker.
“There’s no doubt that the legal profession can and does make our society better.”
Martin was speaking from the vantage point of a man who has logged more than 20 years of service in the state judiciary.
In addition to his time with the Supreme Court of North Carolina, as both an associate justice and in his present position, that service has included time on the North Carolina Court of Appeals and serving with the North Carolina Superior Court.
At the time of his installation on the state’s highest court in 1999, Martin, now 53, was the youngest Supreme Court justice in North Carolina history, and also was the youngest person ever elected to the Court of Appeals. He is now serving his first full term as chief justice, having been elected in 2014.
Martin told Friday’s audience that attorneys have been vital to the nation since its beginning, when they were considered a “stabilizing force” that replaced the European nobility with which settlers were familiar.
They have continually played a key role throughout the history of the U.S. and that is especially true today in the face of increasing state and federal regulation. Many aspects of daily life require the services of an attorney, the state’s chief justice continued, mentioning the preparation of a will and formation of a limited-liability company as examples.
Then there are the more-familiar television scenarios of criminal trials in which defense lawyers representing murder or other suspects fight it out with district attorneys, and less-glamorous activities such as keeping people from being evicted.
Regardless of the matter involved, one thing that binds attorneys together is the need to maintain standards as professionalism including ethics, dedication, hard work, integrity and civility — “case by case, client by client,” Martin said.
And unlike a TV courtroom drama, the ultimate goal is truth and justice, according to the visiting state official. “Not to win.”
Although the interaction between prosecutors and defense lawyers is adversarial in nature, mutual respect for each other and the court itself is essential, Martin added, which usually is as simple as a handshake.
State a leader
Another trait that sets the legal profession apart from others is it is generally self-regulating, the chief justice said during his address Friday— but that comes with a price.
“Self-regulation is a privilege,” Martin said, explaining that it constantly requires responsibility and leadership among its members.
The idea is that the bad actions of a few can’t be allowed to taint the legal field a whole, he said, which sometimes happens with high-profile cases of lawyer misconduct. “I think many of us have been concerned about our profession.”
Martin said North Carolina seeks to ensure high standards through its Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism, which was a key sponsor for Friday’s gathering at Dobson.
It was established by state law which requires the commission to provide ongoing attention and assistance to ensure the legal profession remains a high calling, and is dedicated to the service of clients and the public good. This was stressed among those attending the Dobson program.
The Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism was started in 1999, and North Carolina is now one of only 16 states with such an organization.
“We’re showing leadership around the country with what we’re doing with this program,” Martin said.
“We have an annual professionalism award — this is something we can all be proud of,” he said of practitioners across the state.
At times the commission can serve as a buffer between lawyers and judges and the North Carolina State Bar, the agency charged with regulating the practice of law in the state which hears grievances and metes out discipline.
The commission will learn of an attorney or judge who seemingly is violating standards of professionalism and might be unaware of that due to their self-regulatory nature, said Mel Wright, the executive director of the group who also spoke Friday.
“We want to keep it from reaching the State Bar if we can,” added Wright, who practiced law privately for 26 years before taking the post with the commission in 1999.
That typically includes inviting the errant practitioner to lunch and having a friendly face-to-face discussion to set that person straight.
“Just as an old lawyer, to talk to them about what is right and what is wrong,” Wright said of the process.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.