Have you heard the one about how you can tell if an attorney is lying? His lips are moving. Or how about the young lawyer wanting to impress the first client coming into his office, picked up the phone and said, "I'm sorry, but I have a tremendous case load and won't be able to look into this for at least a month." He then hung up, turned to the young man in his office and asked, "What can I do for you, sir?" "Nothing," replied the young man. "I'm just here to hook up your phone." These are just two of millions of lawyer jokes dealing with one issue: Lawyer ethics.
Before I went to law school I thought of law in the United States as a concrete, reliable source of rules derived from the Constitution and based on principles of right and wrong. To get at the law, all you had to do was blow back the atmospheric heavens and there it sat in all of its glory. Law school changed all of that; especially when it came to ethics.
Real Life Ethics Scenario
One real-life legal situation illustrates how the ethics I held prior to law school were at stark odds with those promoted by the American Bar Association. The case involved a defense attorney who represented a man accused (and eventually convicted) of the first degree murder of two five year old girls. The girls' bodies had not been found. At some point before the trial the accused told his attorney that he had committed the crime and described in detail the location of the bodies.
At trial, the defense attorney represented his client as best he could. He questioned the methods used by the investigating officers, provided alternative scenarios of what could have happened to the girls, pointed out that no bodies had been found and otherwise represented his client with zeal. He was required to do so under the applicable code of ethics. He watched the parents of the girls sit in the courtroom with tears in their eyes as the prosecution painted the picture of two brutal homicides.
Despite his best efforts his client was convicted of the crime. The parents were somewhat relieved by the verdict and requested that the murderer tell them where the bodies were buried. The parents sought closure. The murderer refused. The parents then turned to the defense attorney and asked whether he knew where the bodies were buried. It was apparent from the look on his face that he knew but the code of ethics required him to remain silent. You see, the code of ethics values the attorney/client relationship over the peace of mind and closure sought by the parents.
The defense attorney's conscience nagged him during the trial and continued to do so through several lengthy appeals. After the conclusion of the last appeal, the attorney's conscience got the best of him. Through an anonymous letter, he revealed to the parents the location of the bodies of their daughters. The murder weapon (a knife I believe) was found with the girls which served to vindicate the verdict of guilty. The attorney's conscience was free, but his legal troubles had just begun.
It was discovered that the anonymous letter had come from the attorney. He was brought before his state bar accused of violating the attorney/client privilege and eventually disbarred. When confronted with whether he sent the anonymous letter the attorney admitted he had. He did not lie about his involvement. My ethics before law school say that he did the right thing. The correct answer on the ethics exam is that he failed miserably. No wonder there are so many jokes about the ethics of lawyers.