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OBA Ethics Counsel

Ethics Highway 1

By Travis Pickens

As Oklahoma lawyers, I promise each of you has the gift of lawyering. It is too long and arduous a process to become a lawyer for you not to possess a unique set of skills and intelligence. I have been in this job five and a half years and spoken to thousands of lawyers, and not once have I come away with the sense that the lawyer somehow fooled the law schools’ admissions officers or our Board of Bar Examiners.

Lawyers don’t go to law school to become criminals. A professional life is a long slog, and we must perform at a very high level for an extended time, typically several decades, often with some very difficult clients. Unsurprisingly, I have seen several lawyers lose their way and it is often because of this that their names end up at the top of a case before the Oklahoma Supreme Court in a disciplinary proceeding. They are of course not bad people; typically, they are exceptionally good people. They were excellent students and were examined as to character and fitness before they were granted a license. They have the skills to be lawyers – even great lawyers – but the difficult path of the practice, with seeming perfection the standard and near-perfection the best one can expect, along with other factors, often pulls them into trouble over time. Note how most of the disciplinary cases are the result of middle-aged behavior and thinking after a few hard crunching decades in the world, not that of a new lawyer. As time goes on, many of us face addictions, anxieties, disappointments, depressions, reversals, indiscretions, frustrations, infatuations, infuriations and other traps that are along the dangerous winding road of a professional life.

Indeed, a lawyer’s life is often like California’s Highway 1; there are miles of stunning ocean vistas framed by water-painted beaches and a luminous sky, but to see it you must hew to a zig-zagging single lane road with no shoulder along the edges of steep cliffs towering above jagged rocks and crashing waves hundreds of feet below.

The important thing to remember on our shared highway of professional life is that because of what you have accomplished and who you are as a person, you deserve to be here. Remember also that the most difficult challenge after you are licensed, and it is difficult, is to maintain the right state of mind over the entirety of your career. To do that, you must be ever vigilant, but you must relax enough to enjoy the drive. You must see the Rules of Professional Conduct as rules for success, not a limitless set of school zones and speed traps. You must trust that the Office of General Counsel and our Supreme Court are looking first to protect the public, not suspend or take away your license. You must choose well your fellow travelers, your colleagues and your clients. You must pull over at times to savor what you are passing through; it is often a gorgeous view. And when you arrive at your destination many, many miles and cases hence, you will have been on a journey that very few others are privileged to have. Safe travels.

About the Author

Travis Pickens is a lawyer in private practice in Oklahoma City. He served as OBA ethics counsel from August 2009 – January 2015. He has served as co-chair of the OBA Work/Life Balance Committee and as vice-chair of the Lawyers Helping Lawyers Assistance Program Committee. He is a 1984 graduate of the OU College of Law.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- Feb. 14, 2015 -- Volume 86, No. 5.