Massachusetts Attorney’s Oath of Office

Issue November/December 2017 By MBA President Christopher P. Sullivan

January 17, 1977, was a bitter cold winter day in Boston. I had come here on that day to be sworn in as a brand new member of the Massachusetts bar. As I entered the “New Courthouse” that housed the Supreme Judicial Court, I wasn’t thinking about all the many outstanding lawyers who so skillfully practiced their craft in the courts of this commonwealth. That list is far too long to fit in this limited space, but includes greats, such as John Adams, who wrote the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, which was the model for the United States Constitution; Daniel Webster; Rufus Choate; Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the United States Supreme Court Justice who famously defended First Amendment rights against criminal prosecution; and, of course, Louis D. Brandeis, the “People’s Lawyer” who helped develop the concept of the right to privacy before he, too, became a Supreme Court Justice. Brandeis and Holmes were critically important founding fathers who helped create the Massachusetts Bar Association. As Massachusetts lawyers we should take pride in the history of our profession in the commonwealth.

No, on that day, I wasn’t thinking of any great Massachusetts lawyers. My wife and I were expecting our second child any moment. And I was under strict orders to get back home as soon as I possibly could. Perhaps because I was so preoccupied, I don’t remember too much about that day, except that John E. Powers, clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court, swore in our small group of a dozen or so new lawyers in his office. I do remember he told us that our reputations as lawyers were more important than any client could ever be. That was great advice and something I hope none of us ever forget.

The swearing in event was simple and so efficient that it was over almost before it began. With my mind on my wife and the new child who would arrive the next day, I was not reflecting on the ancient Massachusetts Attorney’s Oath of Office, which I had just taken. As Maura Doyle, the clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County now tells all new lawyers being sworn in, it is the oldest attorney’s oath in the country.

Several years ago, as an MBA officer, I began speaking at the new admittees swearing in ceremonies, which are now conducted with great pomp and circumstance in historic Faneuil Hall. The old hall is always packed with the new attorneys to be, and with their families and friends filling each and every seat. As part of those ceremonies, SJC Clerk Maura Doyle educates the soon to be attorneys about the oath and its history, including that Maine also claims ownership of the oath.

The oath is short, only 90 words long, but it certainly provides a clear road map for how Massachusetts attorneys swear they will conduct themselves. The new attorneys swear they “will to do no falsehood, nor consent to the doing of any in court.” The oath also binds the attorneys not to “sue any false, groundless or unlawful suit” nor to consent or help anyone trying to do so. The attorneys promise they won’t cause delays for “lucre” [money] or malice.” Finally, the ancient oath requires the attorneys to conduct themselves “with all good fidelity” toward the courts and their clients — simple, yet powerful promises.

Now that oath is on my smart phone and every few weeks, especially when I’ve had a hard day, I read it. The oath reminds me of the solemn promises I made so long ago. Reading it always makes me realize what a noble profession the law is. Reading the oath brings me right back to what is most important in our work.

In the current era of “fake news,” “alternative facts” and the over-zealous advocacy practiced by some, it is helpful to remember how we have all sworn to conduct ourselves in this ancient and honorable profession we love.

I solemnly swear that I will do no falsehood, nor consent to the doing of any in court; I will not wittingly or willingly promote or sue any false, groundless or unlawful suit, nor give aid or consent to the same; I will delay no man for lucre or malice; but I will conduct myself in the office of an attorney within the courts according to the best of my knowledge and discretion, and with all good fidelity as well to the courts as my clients. So help me God.

Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 221, Section 38
The oldest attorney’s oath in the United States

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