around the bar
November 21, 2011

Even a Villain Deserves a Lawyer

Jerry Sandusky, Casey Anthony and alleged terrorists … what’s a lawyer to do when representing an unpopular client? A panel of expert lawyers spoke to the issue at a meeting Thursday in Washington, D.C.

The formal prohibitions on who a lawyer or firm can represent are quite narrow, said Thomas D. Morgan, professor, George Washington University Law School.  However, it’s a moral issue and “we all make judgments on who we will represent.”

Making those judgments may be one thing when a lawyer is a solo practitioner or even in a small practice, but what about when she is one of many lawyers at a firm:  Who makes the decision as to who the firm will or will not have as clients?  As moderator John Hardin Young, partner with Sandler, Reiff, Young & Lamb in Washington, D.C., posed, Doesn’t a lawyer have the duty to take into consideration the brand of the firm?

The brand of the firm is not the only consideration, panelists said.

“Are you undercutting the representation of other clients?” asked Morgan.  There is an obligation to run one’s firm so that clients are proud. Yet, one client’s wishes, even one who provides significant business to a firm, can’t be the arbiter.

Lawrence J. Fox, visiting lecturer in law at Yale University School of Law and partner at Drinker Biddle in Philadelphia, recounted a story of Henry Sawyer, who represented accused communists before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  Despite his own political leanings, a leading partner, Henry Drinker, fully supported Sawyer even though he faced pressures from clients, of which Fox is very proud.

An audience member said that even though one representation may cause a loss of business for a firm, taking a strong stance might also bring clients.

Panelists and the audience talked about the idea that law firms in the South were protecting their firm’s brand when they refused to represent African-Americans during the civil rights era, and Northern lawyers were called in.

Fox also noted that the public sentiment on representation of Gitmo detainees shifted from the very negative, which he said was a result of firms and individual lawyers stepping up to the plate.  And serving as pro bono counsel to death row inmates, for a certain kind of firm, can be a badge of honor, even though the firm knows that it will lose most of the cases, said Fox.

When faced with these types of ethical dilemmas, there’s also a consideration of law firm as a legal profession or as a business.  What are the partners’ obligations to their associates, paralegals and other staff, especially in rough economic times?  How do firm partners make the decision if faced with representing a sexual predator, for example?

A lawyer or a firm needs to decide the criteria for choosing clients and who will make that choice, especially when it is a firm-wide dilemma, said Morgan.

Public servants who have taken an oath to serve, as well as in-house counsel, generally can’t bypass a case—passing it on to a colleague as a lawyer in a multiple-attorney firm could do.

The program also included a discussion of the media’s role in high-profile cases.  Wasn’t it the media who found Casey Anthony guilty before she was found innocent by the jury?  An attendee, however, pointed out that many of the guests on television shows who discussed these cases and swayed public opinion are themselves lawyers.

The program, “So Someone Objects to Your New Client …” was sponsored by the _ Section of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice.

Learn More About:  Administrative Law

Comments (1)

  • Max
    10:37 PM November 29, 2011

    When you can’t afford a lawyer, a court appointed lawyer is provided. Why must this service be of lesser quality? Everyone deserves legal representation and counsil whether they can afford it or not. Not just some one to stand with them before the judge.