February 6, 2016 • By Dennis Beaver

For the many lawyers who read this column, in the next few minutes, wander the corridors of memory with me, to those hectic weeks before final exams during the first year at law school.

It is a time of intense review, study group meetings, and a common practice in law schools across America; allowing students the opportunity to review the complexity and broad scope of previous final exam essay questions, many of the same issues reappearing on new tests.

At my school, Loyola, in downtown Los Angeles, these exams — many going back years — were kept in a blue binder, which the librarian handed to any student who requested them. Over to the photocopier you’d walk, deposit a few coins, and make your copies.

This gives first-year students much more than a glimpse of what final exams look like. For with the law school’s blessing is the chance to analyze the structure and content of prior tests and is of incredible value. I am sure that without that opportunity, many would have done a lot worse on their finals.

I saw my study group friend, let’s call him Steve, with his girlfriend, at the photocopy machine, making copies.

They lived together in a beautifully furnished apartment near the campus that was always well stocked with great wine, expensive cheese and other goodies, courtesy — I was told — of his parents. During one of these study sessions, Steve said something that I thought was either twisted humor or a disgusting reason to study law, “Once we pass the Bar, it will be license to screw people over.”

When he said that, I studied his face, realizing that he looked like a rat! He really looked like an overgrown, beady-eyed rat! As I would soon discover, his appearance revealed a potential future lawyer, lacking ethics, integrity, and morality.

Several days later, I tried to make a few copies, but everything the machine produced was unreadable and smeared, completely worthless. But Steve was dutifully copying all the first-year exams in the folder, helped by his girlfriend. She was lovely, with a sweet face that revealed little emotion as she and Steve replaced the clean originals with garbage.

She was also very pregnant.

The consequences of what they were doing was sickeningly obvious. It went beyond cheating. This was immorality on a scale that could impact the entire first year class.

“How can you do this?” I asked them. “How can you help him do this to all his classmates? I have been to your apartment many times. How do you justify doing this to me and your friends in our study group?” I asked her in a tone of voice that did not exactly seek a reply.

“Don’t you get it? You are carrying his child and not married. The way he is treating others is how he will treat you when, not if, but when things turn bad. Put the originals back now!”

We had studied cases about people who do precisely these kinds of things in contracts and torts, and yet here I was, staring into the faces of a couple with no sense of morality. Were Steve to pass the bar, he would indeed use his license the way he described. “Put the originals back now, Steve,” I repeated, over and over again. “Put them back now or I will go to the Dean’s Office. It’s your choice.”He looked at me, laughed nervously, and put them all back. As insurance that he would not return later and try the same thing, I walked directly to where the head librarian was standing, looked in Steve’s direction, talked about the weather, but made large hand gestures, as if I were making photocopies. Steve, I’m sure, got the message. The librarian probably thought that I was suffering from pre-exam jitters.

Twice daily until finals were over, I checked the blue folder. The originals remained in place.

Steve flunked out of school. I had never wished that a classmate would fail, but I did in his case.

Most attorneys who demolish their reputations usually wait until after graduation from law school and being sworn in as a member of the Bar. Steve was ahead of the curve. Had he actually become a lawyer, no matter how able or brilliant, were our paths to cross, the only image of him in my mind would still be that of a thief.

It is one of the most fragile things we possess, our reputation: Our reputation with classmates who will become colleagues, partners, and the judges before whom we will stand. Handle it with care.

Across my years of practice, I’ve found that most do.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.