I am the first lawyer in my immediate family. I am also a litigator: I represent plaintiffs in employment discrimination claims, businesses in legal disputes, and defendants in criminal cases. So, I am used to the “are you a lawyer or a liar” and “how can you defend criminals” comments from some of my family and non-lawyer friends who are less-than familiar with my profession.
Unfortunately, in our current political and economic climate, the perception of lawyers as less than honest and ethical people is sometimes well deserved. Recently, it seems as if the media has a daily story about some lawyer getting into trouble for questionable, dishonest, unethical, and criminal behavior. Most recently, we have seen Mr. Michael Avenatti face multiple indictments for fraud, theft, and a variety of other crimes; Mr. Gordon Caplan plead guilty in the college admissions scandal; Mr. Michael Cohen — well, we don’t really have to revisit his list of offenses; the lawyer in Florida who pushed a helpless racoon off his boat 20 miles from shore and now has to answer to the Florida State Bar; Mr. Rudy Guiliani and his regular shenanigans speaking on behalf of the White House; the former AUSA convicted of stalking his ex-girlfriend; the string of attorneys and judges accused of sexual misconduct in the last year alone; and the list goes on. Should we wonder why lawyers are still seen as untrustworthy, shady “liars”?
While your personal lifestyle choices do not dictate whether you are a good lawyer, the way you conduct yourself does have a significant impact on the profession. In that respect, honesty and integrity are indispensable and essential. From a practical perspective, what does that mean for any lawyer? It does not mean that you do not have a right to live life as you choose. Marry the person of your choice, irrespective of gender, or don’t marry if you so choose and love whomever you want in whatever way suits you and the person(s) you choose. Have children or don’t. Be Catholic, or be Muslim, or be Jewish, or don’t be religious at all. None of that matters. Don’t lie to your clients. Don’t steal from your clients. Don’t lie for your clients. Don’t cheat the system with illegal shortcuts. Don’t mistreat, harass, or physically hurt other people. Don’t discriminate. Those are the things that matter.
It is important for lawyers to be honest and behave lawfully. We cannot do our jobs effectively if we lie, cheat, and steal while also fighting for clients, whether victims or accused. The people that lawyers represent often entrust us with sensitive information and life-altering circumstances, usually during the worst times of their lives. If we are not honest and lawful in all our dealings, both personal and professional, we betray their trust in us. It makes sense that the character and fitness review that you must go through to get admitted to practice in most states is rigorous and examines every aspect of both your personal and professional life. I recently went through this process to get admitted in North Carolina. When I started that process, I had already been admitted and practicing in New York for many years. When I applied to North Carolina, the amount of information I had to supply was voluminous. It included financial history, professional ties and recommendations, business information, family information, criminal background checks (yes, mine is clean), and much more. I was happy to provide every bit of information that was requested. It made sense. This new state where I wanted to practice law and represent their citizens wanted to be sure that I had the best moral character before they let me do so. They wanted to be sure that I was honest, that I would not break the law, and that I would represent their people honestly and zealously. That’s what we sign on for when we take the oath of office as lawyers.
Most of the time, it is not so hard to be honest and abide by the law. Temptation, however, is everywhere. If you run a small shop and finances are tight, a huge amount of client settlement money in the escrow account may be hard to resist for some in desperate times. Of course, you get disbarred for using that money. Perhaps you think it might be ok to look the other way if you know your client is lying. Just spin it a little and you will win your case. I can guarantee that will come back to you in a bad way down the road. Harder still is keeping your practice honest. Are you doing your best to hire the best and most diverse candidates? Would the client who came to you because their employer discriminated against them based on their age, gender, etc. trust you if you did the same in your own office? Sure, your expertise and connections can get you perks that some people might not get, as will your money if you have it. However, if it violates the law, it is not worth the risk. I’ll bet Mr. Caplan would agree with that right now. And, don’t mistreat animals — almost no one likes an animal abuser.
Just because we know how to use the law does not mean that we get to abuse and break it. It also does not mean that we are above it. If our clients cannot trust us to be honest and do the right thing, they won’t trust the work we do. Hopefully, this year will bring fewer stories of lawyers behaving badly and more stories of lawyers championing the rights of others, using the law the right way. Then maybe people will be less inclined to think that lawyer is synonymous with liar.
Christine A. Rodriguez is of counsel to the firm Balestriere Fariello and successfully represents individuals and small businesses in all manner of employment discrimination, civil rights, criminal defense, civil litigation and commercial litigation matters. She also advises small businesses on all aspects of legal matters from contract to employee issues. You can reach her by email at christine. a. rodriguez@balestrierefariello. com.