We all know the old adage about acting for ourselves and having fools for clients, but it is more than a bumper-sticker philosophy.
At the heart of what we do is independence – our ability to step between our client’s emotions and biases and the realities of a matter.
That we can do that is the product of many things – training, knowledge, experience – but mostly it is because the matter does not involve us personally. We are not invested in the outcome, and this allows us to apply our own forensic examination to the case, and have full and frank discussions with clients; whether we can have those same discussions with ourselves is another question.
Your silver tongue may have kept people out of prison or explained the inexplicable to befuddled clients, but it will almost certainly trip over your own emotions when it’s your own rights on the line. The consequences of lawyers being their own lawyers can be dire, as shown in a recent Canadian case.
In Law Society of BC v. Edwards, 2020 LSBC 57, the Law Society of British Columbia considered the regrettable consequences of a lawyer acting for himself and failing to separate his emotions from the conduct of the action.
Indeed, the hearing panel observed (at 109):
“The Respondent’s unprofessional behaviour was protracted and continued in the face of numerous criticisms and warnings from the court. His judgment was patently contorted by his emotional response to his matrimonial situation, and he was indifferent to the impact on his family, his colleagues, the court system and other parties who were simply doing their job.”
Indeed. Mr Edwards chose to represent himself in matrimonial proceedings before the Supreme Court in British Columbia, but almost from the start appears to have lost perspicacity. Instead of using his legal knowledge to advocate robustly for his own position, the Hearing Panel found he utilised that knowledge to delay the matter, maximise costs for his opponent, and also harass and intimidate her and her new partner. A full casenote of the Panel’s decision can be found here.
What is clear is that Mr Edwards – who up until this matter had an unblemished conduct record – behaved, when acting for himself, in a way he had never behaved when acting for others. In short, his personal connection to the outcome made it impossible for him to be dispassionate in the conduct of the case; independence, when acting for himself in such emotive proceedings, was impossible.
The consequences for Mr Edwards were dire: a two-month suspension from practice, and having to pay costs of over $14,000. No doubt the reputational damage was far higher, given that the panel was moved to state (at 24):
“As a member of an ancient and respectable profession, the Respondent should have acted in a manner that maintained his own honour, as well as the honour of the legal profession. He failed in all aspects to adhere to the virtues of probity, integrity, honesty and dignity. While emotions can run high in family law litigation, as a lawyer, the Respondent had a duty to keep those emotions in check and to act with decorum and courtesy.”
None of this would have been likely had Mr Edwards engaged his own lawyer, who could have provided that independence, that buffer between his emotion and the running of the case – and we are all of us equally vulnerable. If at all possible, we should avoid acing for ourselves; we always tell our clients they should have a lawyer on their side, what makes us any different? Perhaps it is best to let our own High Court have the last word:
“Importantly, the view that solicitors should be encouraged to act for themselves is contrary to the modern orthodoxy that it is undesirable, as a matter of professional ethics, for a solicitor to act for himself or herself in litigation.”1
1 Bell Lawyers Pty Ltd v Pentelow  HCA 29; (2019) 372 ALR 555, .