Who should take over from St Ivo as the new patron saint of lawyers?

It is time, some 700 years after his death, to re-evaluate the appropriateness of St Ivo as our lawyers’ patron saint. Does he still represent our values? Is there an alternative? And, indeed, do we need a figurehead at all?

Ivo was born in to a noble family in Brittany in 1252. He went to university in Paris at the age of 14 to study rhetoric, theology and canon law, and then proceeded to Orleans for Roman law. He returned home, to become a priest as well as a lawyer. He was eventually made deputy judge to the local bishop, who rarely sat in court, and so Ivo effectively became the sole clerical judge for the region. He served as judge for 19 years.

It is interesting to study the qualities which are reported of his life and work. I am fully aware that values have changed, and that it is absurd to judge people of the 13th century by those of the 21st. I have kept that in mind in my deconstruction of his life below. But what other values are we to use if we want to make a decision on whether he should remain our figurehead?

There are aspects of his personality which have nothing to do with the law. For instance, it is reported that he slept only on a pallet of straw, wore the humblest clothes, gave away his money, and often shared meals with the poor. These are wonderful qualities for the patron saint of charity and self-mortification, but are irrelevant for a lawyer. It would have made no difference if he had lived in luxury in a castle, provided that he carried out the same legal services.

Second, it is reported that he took cases only for the poor, widows and orphans. (I know, in our cynical times, it sounds like a Monty Python sketch.) Every applicant first had to make an oath that their cause was just. Then Ivo would say Pro Deo te adjuvabo (for the sake of God, I will help you). This needs further analysis.

First, it is not only the poor, widows and orphans who deserve justice. We saw that in the News of the World phone-hacking saga, where the victims were rich celebrities. Presumably, the implication in St Ivo’s list is that he would help people who could not otherwise afford justice. But there are people who might be able to afford it, but still cannot find representation: the unpopular, the cast out, those considered – particularly by the church at the time – to be morally questionable or even wicked. What about them?

And then there is the matter of clients having to take an oath. Clients? I thought it was lawyers who might have to take the oath. First, most clients think that their case is just, and so the value of an oath becomes almost meaningless. Second, clients might nevertheless for a range of reasons think that their case is a bad one, but they still deserve a lawyer to save themselves from their wrong judgement. Finally, the response of St Ivo is one which most of us can no longer support as a reason for providing help – for God. If we follow the St Ivo framework, a modern response (which sounds ridiculous when spelled out, I know) would be along the lines of ‘For the sake of democracy and the rule of law, I will help you’.

A replacement for St Ivo should demonstrate values which we consider vital today. For example, his emphasis on clients’ lack of financial resources is not the be-all-and-end-all in a welfare state. More significant is a willingness to represent anyone, regardless of resources, morality, politics or gravity of behaviour – civil or criminal. There are other qualities, too: an analytical mind, an ethical stance including scrupulous honesty, an ability to combine detail with vision. There have been famous court lawyers (FE Smith, Clarence Darrow) and famous judges (Lord Denning, Oliver Wendell Holmes), but being a lawyer goes beyond advocacy or written judgments. There have been famous lawyers who have inspired the world through their deeds and vision (Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela), but their fame rests on actions outside the law.

Whoever is nominated to replace St Ivo will in due course be overtaken by changing circumstances, as he has. I can think of no one in public life who incorporates the values of the perfect lawyer – even famous names have their weaknesses. Maybe some would be happier with a fictional character, to be replaced as and when times change. If there were to be a vote today for a figurehead, I would nominate the fictional character who has inspired more modern lawyers than any other, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. Any takers?

Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs