‘Attorney” is not only a title—it is a responsibility.
“As officers of the court, lawyers must not only, in fact, be of good moral character but must also be seen to be of good moral character in leading lives in accordance with the highest moral standards of the community. More specifically, a member of the bar and officer of the court is not only required to refrain from adulterous relationship or the keeping of mistresses [Toledo v. Toledo, 75 SCRA 747 (1963)] but must also behave himself as to avoid scandalizing the public by creating the belief that he is flouting those moral standards” (Tolosa v. Cargo, 171 SCRA 21 ).
A lawyer shall always conduct himself ethically and morally. The best way a lawyer can uphold the integrity and dignity of the legal profession is not to engage in any conduct or do any act that adversely reflects on his fitness to practice law, nor to behave, in his public or private life, in a scandalous manner to the discredit of the legal profession (Rule 17.03, Code of Professional Responsibility). He should instead endeavor to conduct himself at all times in such a way as to give credit to the legal profession and to inspire the confidence, respect and trust of his clients and the community. (Comments of IBP Committee that drafted the Code, p. 37) It is a fair characterization of the lawyer’s responsibility in our society that he stands “as a shield” in the defense of rights and to ward off wrong. From the profession charged with these responsibilities there must be expected those qualities of truth speaking, of a high sense of honor, of granite discretion, of the strictest observance of fiduciary responsibility, that have throughout the centuries been compendiously described as “moral character” (Ibid, p. 37).
Some lawyers have taken the forbidden path and, as a consequence, have been disciplined or deprived of their privilege to practice law. Among those acts that adversely reflect on the lawyer’s fitness to practice law, which justify suspension from practice or disbarment include gross immorality. Gross immorality is reflective of unfitness to practice.
An act of personal immorality on the part of a lawyer in his private relation with the opposite sex may put his moral character in doubt. However, to justify suspension or disbarment, the act must not only be immoral; it must be grossly immoral as well. A grossly immoral act is one that is so corrupt and false as to constitute a criminal act or so unprincipled or disgraceful as to be reprehensible to a high degree. It has been held that a lawyer is guilty of gross immorality, which justifies denial of his application to take the lawyer’s oath or, after his admission, his suspension or disbarment, where he lives an adulterous life with a married woman (Cordova v. Cordova, 179 SCRA 837 ), or abandons his lawful wife to live with another woman (Obusan v. Obusan, 128 SCRA 485 ).
On the other hand, it has also been held that mere intimacy between a man and a woman, either of whom possesses no legal impediment to marry, voluntarily carried on and devoid of any deceit on the part of the lawyer, is neither so corrupt nor so unprincipled as to warrant imposition of disciplinary sanction against him as a member of the bar, even if as a result of such relationship the woman gave birth to a child, and so long as he admits the paternity of, and agrees to support, such child. He may be disciplined if he subsequently disowns, or refuses to support the child (Marcayda v. Mari Wang, 106 SCRA 591 ).
Lawyers as guardians of the law play a vital role in the preservation of society. The fulfillment of this role requires an understanding by lawyers of their relationship with and function in our legal system. A consequent obligation of lawyers is to maintain the highest standards of ethical conduct. Canon 7 provides that, “A lawyer shall at all times uphold the integrity and dignity of the legal profession…”
In fulfilling his professional responsibilities, a lawyer necessarily assumes various roles that require the performance of many difficult tasks. Not every situation that he may encounter can be foreseen, but fundamental ethical principles are always present to guide him. Within the framework of these principles, a lawyer must with courage and foresight be able and ready to shape the body of the law to the ever-changing relationship of society.
The Code of Professional Responsibility points the way to the aspiring and provides standards by which to judge the transgressor. Each lawyer must find within his own conscience the touchstone against which to test the extent to which his actions should rise above minimum standards. But in the last analysis it is the desire for the respect and confidence of the members of his profession and of the society which he serves that should provide to a lawyer the incentive for the highest possible degree of ethical conduct. The possible loss of that respect and confidence is the ultimate sanction. So long as its practitioners are guided by these principles, the law will continue to be a noble profession. This is its greatness and its strength, which permit of no compromise.
To say that “all lawyers are womanizers” or that “all lawyers are not faithful” is not only making false statements, but is irresponsible and improper conduct, eroding public confidence in law and lawyers. Lawyers cannot be effective instruments in the proper administration of justice if respect for the legal profession is diminished by public ridicule and condemnation of all lawyers. For indeed, the bar can only be as reputable as its members. Thus, every lawyer (and that includes the Speaker of the House and the President) should act and comport himself in such a manner that would promote public confidence in the integrity of the legal profession.