New York State Handbook for Lawyers

New York State Handbook for Lawyers

ORIENTATION TO THE PROFESSION

The Oath of Office

Judiciary Law § 466, entitled “Attorney’s oath of office,” states in relevant part that:

Each person, admitted as prescribed in this chapter must, upon his [or her] admission, take the constitutional oath of office in open court, and subscribe the same in a roll or book, to be kept in the office of the clerk of the appellate division of the supreme court for that purpose.

The text of the oath is set forth in § 1 of Article XIII of the New York State Constitution, as follows:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the constitution of the United States, and the constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of [attorney and counselor-at-law], according to the best of my ability.

The deceptively simple 47 words of the attorney’s oath contain a pledge of such gravity and importance that the Legislature has seen fit to require that it be administered orally in a public court proceeding and to provide that the taking of the oath and the assumption of its obligations be evidenced by the newly admitted attorney’s signature in a book specially kept for that purpose. The administration of the oath takes less than one minute, but its obligations endure for the life of the attorney’s career at the bar. For that reason it is appropriate, on the eve of a candidate’s admission, to examine in greater detail the nature of the obligations that he or she assumes by taking the constitutional oath of office. Usually administered under circumstances intended to impress the person who takes it with the importance of the occasion, an oath of office is a solemn declaration, accompanied by a swearing to God, that he or she will be bound to a promise. The person making the oath implicitly invites punishment if the promise is broken (Black’s Law Dictionary [8th ed 2004], at 1101 [hereinafter Black’s]). An affirmation is a pledge equivalent to an oath but without reference to a supreme being or to “swearing”; it is a solemn declaration made under penalty of perjury, but without an oath (Black’s, at 64).

Upon taking the oath, an applicant becomes an officer of the courts of the State of New York. The formal title of the office is “Attorney and Counselor-at-Law.” An office, in this sense, is a position of duty, trust, and authority, conferred by governmental authority for a public purpose (Black’s, at 1115). In his or her role as an attorney, the officer is one who is designated to transact business for another (Black’s, at 138) and as a counselor-at-law, his or her role is to give legal advice (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary [5th ed 2002], at 532).

Thus, the admission ceremony is a solemn occasion during which a candidate for admission to the bar assumes a public office, the office of Attorney and Counselor-at-Law, by taking an oath or making an affirmation. The terms of that oath or affirmation require the individual to uphold and maintain the authority of the constitutions and laws of the federal and state governments and, in taking on the cares and legal concerns of his or her clients, to give sound legal advice and to loyally and conscientiously fulfill all the tasks associated with the transaction of their legal business. The measure of the energy and application that the lawyer must put into those tasks is the superlative; he or she must give the best in his or her capacity to maintain professional competence, to carefully and zealously represent the client while yet being a peacemaker, to be courteous to and cooperative with fellow lawyers, judges, and court personnel, and to support and improve our laws and government.

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