Judging Lawyers by Their Clients

In a recent press review of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D) role as a young attorney representing tobacco companies, one law professor was quoted as saying that it would be unfair to assess lawyers by whom they represent. “Nobody would want to live in a world in which lawyers are judged by the clients they take,” he suggested. Indeed, that it is an article of faith among most lawyers, and mostly a devious one, in my judgment.

One who represents labor clients is a labor lawyer (we even characterize some as management lawyers, others as union lawyers). Criminal attorneys are known as criminal defense lawyers (not as criminals, usually). A civil rights defender is a civil rights lawyer.

When I was an attorney in the Air Force JAG, I was referred to as a military attorney. I prosecuted or defended as I was ordered to. When I was a prosecutor in the Organized Crime Section of the Justice Department, I was a prosecutor, in my eyes and those of all observers. Why the artificial divorce between what we do and what we are? If someone said to me now, “You seem to be a writer’s lawyer,” because that is much of what I do, I’d say: “Yes, so?”

Only counsel for rich clients who do questionable things, like keeping cigarettes on the market, don’t want to be judged by their clients. Lawyers question being labeled by their clients when they are embarrassed by an association they have profited from. The Constitution doesn’t require lawyers to represent any client in civil matters; it only assures defendants in criminal cases they are entitled to legal representation.

The only instance when it is unfair to label a lawyer by his association is when he takes an assigned case. Then he is living up to professional ethical demands. The rest of the time, attorneys represent clients either to make money or because they have a special interest in the nature of the work or the client. These motives guided me for over 50 years practicing in and out of government. It is the fact of life in law practice.

It is only when lawyers who got rich representing companies that continue to keep their deadly products on the market (unsafe cars, faulty drugs, tobacco) are questioned about their representation that they say they are only living up to their professional duties and shouldn’t be characterized by what they are doing.

I say to that, baloney! Even the law firm Sen. Gillibrand worked at defending tobacco companies had an unusual (very fair) policy allowing young associates — she included — to object to working for tobacco clients on ethical or moral grounds. They had that policy because they understood the dilemma, and faced it.

If lawyers were only interested in helping clients, we’d not have so many poor clients unrepresented. It’s the rich — and often badly behaving — clients who always get their lawyer. Those are the lawyers who shouldn’t complain when they are judged, characterized and labeled with the coloration of their clients.


Visit www.RonaldGoldfarb.com.

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