January 31, 2009 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
One of the more interesting things about the legal profession is the disillusionment young lawyers often experience when they move from government jobs into the very different world of private practice. It certainly was that way for Brandy, four years out of law school, and one of our readers since she was in college.
“Mr. Beaver, your column got me seriously thinking about becoming a lawyer. I liked the idea of helping people solve their problems and public service. So, that’s what I did, landing my first job in a Northern California D.A.’s Office,” her e-mail began.
“It was more than a job. It was ethically and morally rewarding. If we had doubts about a defendant’s guilt, we were encouraged to dismiss. The entire philosophy of the office was to be fair and to do the right thing. Frankly, wanting to earn more money, after three years I accepted a job with a law firm that does criminal defense and family law near Sacramento. In comparison to what I was paid as a deputy DA, I was suddenly very well paid — and realized just how corrupting a high salary can be.
“While the firm claimed to have high ethical standards, what I observed, was asked and expected to do, became impossible to accept,” her e-mail continued.
“In just a few months I was exposed to a side of the legal profession which I only thought existed in novels or the movies: lawyers to whom right and wrong did not matter and who only saw our clients as money machines. My New Year’s resolution was to leave this place, and that’s exactly what I’ve done. If you’ve got a minute, can we talk?” Brandy asked.
Indeed, I had all the time in the world for this young lawyer and spent an encouraging hour with a member of our profession who cares about her clients, and to whom right and wrong means something.
Brandy’s comments shed light on, as she put it, “The Dark Side of the Force.”
Sadly, what she witnessed isn’t new; it’s widespread. But it’s rare to have someone “on the inside” come right out and tell it like it is to a newspaper columnist.
“How you win doesn’t matter”
The duty of a defense attorney is to assure the client receives due process — a fair trial. But, does assuring fairness mean it’s OK to hold press conferences and distort the truth?
“What drove me crazy was the way in which the other lawyers in my office made completely false statements to the media. I was repeatedly told to take every opportunity to proclaim our client’s innocence and say anything which would justify their behavior even where we knew it was false.
“While I knew the answer, of course, I asked my boss if this wasn’t unethical. His reply? This is law practice; it isn’t a law school course in legal ethics. Clients are paying you to win, and how doesn’t matter. Just do and say whatever is necessary to confuse, so, if they don’t acquit, you’ll at least get a hung jury.”
Grand standing to the media is a favorite tactic of some attorneys who have little respect for the truth. It’s unethical and just plain wrong. However, Brandy saw much more than that.
“In the time that I worked in this office, I sat in on meetings with clients where they weren’t just coached in how to testify, but told what to say. That kind of behavior is clearly improper, and when I raised this issue, I was basically patted on the head and told not to worry,” she added.
“One of the strangest things about this firm — and several of the other criminal law specialists I’ve met through them — is the way they publicly justified or trivialized things that can never be justified. Instead of saying nothing to the press, or telling the truth, they lied. In one fatal DUI case, I heard them tell the media that the defendant’s blood alcohol wasn’t very high, when it was almost three times the legal limit. Spousal abuse by a well known physician — -his wife landed in the hospital with fractures — was described as just a little argument that got slightly out of hand.”
Liquid lunch before trial
This column has discussed the well-documented fact that lawyers have one of the highest rates of depression and substance abuse of any profession, 50 percent higher than the general population. Brandy’s year with the firm was an eye opener in this area as well.
“One of the things which really bothers me about one high-profile, criminal defense lawyer, was his excessive drinking,” Brandy said. “I am not against a reasonable consumption of alcohol at the proper place and time. But lunch recess in a trial isn’t the time for a liquid lunch break, returning to court TWD — Trying a case While Drunk. It was a daily occurrence. Client’s deserve better,” she correctly maintains.
“It is that disregard for the best interests of the client which I found so foreign. This isn’t the way ethical lawyers should act,” Brandy believes.
Not all that way
“I know not all lawyers are like this law firm. And I also understand just how difficult it can be for the public to find a lawyer who puts the client’s needs first,” my reader observed.
“In my year here, I discovered those juries and the public put lawyers on trial along with their clients. I’ve spoken with jurors who were incensed by the tactics I saw, and who were likely harder on the client simply because they were so upset with the attorney. That’s something you can tell your readers, Mr. Beaver. Be careful of what your lawyers tells the media — it could hurt you, big time.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.