What Being a Professional Really Means

My doctoral dissertation was about workers in semi-professional occupations, and how their identification with their profession’s values affected how they felt about their work. So I’m always fascinated by stories about professionals faced with difficult situations that challenge the values of their chosen occupation.

This article about Geir Lippestad, the Norwegian lawyer who defended mass murderer Anders Breivek, appeared in the Globe and Mail last month. A few weeks later, Doug Christie, a Canadian lawyer who also defended controversial clients, passed away. I’ve been thinking about the contrast between the two and their reasons for doing what they did – and I’m kind of sorry that the article on Lippestad did not get more attention, because to me he represents why professional work is so important.

Christie claimed that he was a defender of the right to free speech, although, as this article points out, he mainly defended those with controversial or extremist views, and was relentless in doing so.  Some of the comments on the article say that extremist views are the views that need the most defense, so that the views can be heard and then counteracted with the truth. There’s certainly some truth in that, but Christie himself engaged in actions such as standing for election as a representative of the Western Canada Concept party, which espoused some pretty extreme positions on issues such as immigration. So it seems fair to wonder whether Christie’s professional work was truly intended to defend the principle of free speech, or whether it was more to support opinions that he personally agreed with.

Lippestad – who had previously only represented one client with extremist views – also considered issues of free speech when Breivik requested him as a lawyer:

The soft-spoken lawyer said the solution [to extremists] wasn’t to limit free speech or censor people like Mr. Breivik. Instead, xenophobic ideas like his need to be aggressively challenged. “Get it out in the light. Look at it. What is it? Face up to it,” he said…”I don’t think the answer is to shut down [the websites], because then you have the issue of freedom of speech. The answer is to get more knowledge.”

I was deeply impressed with Lippestad’s explanation of his decision to represent Breivik, despite his opposition to Breivik’s racist views and his revulsion at Breivik’s horrible actions.

“[My wife]  said to me, ‘Well I’m a nurse. If he was wounded and came to the hospital I wouldn’t call in and say, no I won’t come into the hospital today because he’s there. I would do my job. You are a lawyer, do your job.’”

…”At the end of [his first meeting with Breivik] I was thinking, what can I do to defend this guy?” Mr. Lippestad said. “Why in the world are you here as a lawyer? And then it was very clear to me. I’m here because I believe in the justice system. I believe in democracy. I believe this is the way we solve things in Norway and in Canada and in many other places in the world. That’s why I’m here.” And that’s what he told the world that day – not the details of the killing, but the importance of giving Mr. Breivik a fair trial.

These quotes resonated with me, because they made me think of my friends who practice or teach labour law. Their clients aren’t mass murderers or racists (and by making that comparison I don’t mean at all to trivialize the awfulness of those kinds of actions), but when I hear these friends speak about their work, their words convey the same kind of passion and the same kind of bigger thinking. Nobody goes into teaching or practicing labour law, especially on the union side, to get rich. Labour lawyers and labour law professors believe in the rights of working people, and see the law as a powerful means of protecting and upholding those rights – and they believe that their work helps society to become more equitable and fair.

This larger context, to me, is why professional work is important. True professionals recognize that their work has an impact on society, and they understand that regulations and structures are there to ensure their work has a positive impact on society. Sometimes values and beliefs need to be challenged, and it’s clear that Doug Christie understood that – but I can’t be sure that his definition of a positive contribution to society would be the same as mine.

I admire Lippestad for having the fortitude to act on his beliefs in a very difficult set of circumstances, and to do so in the context of recognizing how those actions could contribute to the good of society. That, to me, is the definition of a true professional, and it demonstrates why professional work is so meaningful – not just to the person who does it, but also to the society that it affects.

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