A duty to their clients, profession & public
In Elon Law's 2017 Convocation and Call to Honor, a retired judge from the North Carolina Court of Appeals shared how new students will soon need to balance the competing demands lawyers often face.
Judge Douglas McCullough knows what it’s like to balance competing demands that might test your moral compass.
Earlier this year, Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly approved veto-proof legislation that reduces the size of the state Court of Appeals as sitting judges retired. Fifteen judges now occupy the bench; the new law will eventually shrink the court to 12.
McCullough is a lifelong Republican. He recognized that his party wanted to protect the court’s ideological balance by preventing North Carolina’s new Democratic governor from filling vacancies when some judges, himself included, reached a mandatory retirement age of 72.
But McCullough also knew that reducing the size of the North Carolina Court of Appeals would slow its workload and, by extension, slow justice for the many hundreds of citizens whose legal disputes remain unresolved.
“I’m old enough to remember the 1980s, when many of you weren’t even born,” he said Thursday morning in a Convocation ceremony for Elon Law’s Class of 2019. “We had a very popular governor, who was Republican, and the Democrats were in control of the legislature. Yet they did not try to prevent him from appointing people to vacancies.”
So shortly before the law would have taken effect, McCullough conferred with his wife, and then called the governor’s office. He would retire the following Monday morning at 9:30 a.m. The governor swiftly appointed McCullough’s successor, who was sworn in 15 minutes after McCullough formally left the court.
“I owed it to the people of this great state to keep the court functioning regardless of what some would do for partisan politics,” he said. “I’m very comfortable with the decision I made.”
McCullough shared his reflections on a story that made statewide headlines this spring during Elon Law’s annual program for incoming students. The Aug. 10, 2017, Convocation doubled as Elon Law’s Call to Honor, in which students pledged to uphold the values of Elon University: honesty, integrity, responsibility and respect.
The law school’s honor code inspired McCullough to remind students how lawyers ultimately have three simultaneous duties: one to their clients, one to their profession, and one to the public. Following that ethical code is what led him to retire early, as he understood that new laws would do a disservice to the public.
“Those three duties are constantly with you and have to be balanced in each case,” McCullough said. “You never know when those duties will conflict, when you’ll have to choose a path and do the right thing.”
McCullough began his legal career prosecuting organized crime in Philadelphia upon his release from active duty as a Judge Advocate in the U.S. Marine Corps. He then accepted a position as staff counsel on the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee, before serving as legislative counsel to U.S. Sen. Harrison Schmitt.
McCullough returned to his home state in 1981 to begin work as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Over the next 15 years, he personally tried more than 100 criminal jury trials involving public corruption, narcotics, conspiracies, fraud, regulatory, health, safety and environmental violations.
It was in this capacity that McCullough helped lead an investigation into international drug cartels that would eventually bring down Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Those efforts are shared in “Sea of Greed,” a book McCullough co-authored with writer Les Pendleton.
McCullough retired from government and entered private practice in 1996 with Stubbs & Perdue, PA, before his election to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
“You are going to live under a code for the rest of your life, and this has to be emphasized now,” he said. “You’re entering a profession, not an occupation, and this profession has rules that govern how you behave. You’re going to be judged by that standard.”
The Convocation program featured additional remarks from Elon University Provost Steven House, Elon Law Dean Luke Bierman, and Veronica Townsend of the Class of December 2017, the current president of the Student Bar Association.
House described for students the quality of the faculty that will teach them about the law while reminding the class to be active participants in their own learning. “They are noted for their accessibility and responsiveness to students, truly remarkable and devoted teachers, scholars and mentors,” House said. “They will stretch you and challenge you more than you thought possible.”
Townsend told the Class of 2019 that it is crucial to embrace the feelings of optimism and courage they felt as new students so that they, too, will always see how victories outweigh hardships they may face.
“Be inspired by the lessons you learn here, both in the classroom and beyond, and allow yourself to be shaped by the opportunities you face into the legal influencer that you most want to be,” Townsend said. “And, no matter what happens along the way or where you end up, never forget this moment where you sat amongst your peers and embarked on the first step of your journey – the very beginning.
"It is this moment where perhaps the greatest, most gratifying, and most remarkable experience of your life begins.”
Each student in the Class of 2019 was introduced by Elon Law Associate Dean Enrique Armijo during the ceremony, which included the university's traditional gift of an acorn to symbolize the beginning of their Elon education. Elon is the Hebrew word for "oak."
Bierman concluded the program with a reminder to students that practicing the law is not a right. He reiterated the sentiments McCullough shared moments earlier.
“This privilege to be a lawyer comes also with responsibility. You must be first to your clients. You must fulfill your duties as officers of the court. And you must be true to yourself,” he said. “Take away that you are entering a noble profession with much potential and opportunity to do well.”