ABA does not uphold the profession of law

By John Nowacki
web posted March 19, 2001

After graduating from law school and being admitted to the bar, young lawyers are often presented with words of wisdom from their elders, those who have been in the legal profession for some time and are interested in helping their junior colleagues start off on the right foot. In my own experience, one admonition in particular stood out: the need to uphold the profession of law throughout everything we did.

I remember sitting in a hotel ballroom before the Virginia Supreme Court, just before the swearing in of new attorneys, listening to one of the justices talk to us about our responsibilities not only to our clients, but also to the profession itself. Later on, in a mandatory continuing legal education class on professionalism, I heard what seemed like an endless stream of speakers repeating that same lesson. In fact, this was all familiar material from law school and the mandatory professional responsibility class.

Unfortunately, the idea of upholding the profession of law seems lost on many of the legal profession's leaders, and judging from recent news, it's lost on many of our future lawyers as well.

On the morning of March 14, the New York Post ran a story about how two student groups at the Benjamin Cardozo Law School will present an "Advocate for Peace" award to Bill Clinton, a disgraced attorney who eventually surrendered his law license for five years after a federal judge sanctioned him for giving "false, misleading, and evasive answers" designed to obstruct justice. That judge described his behavior as "misconduct that undermines the integrity of the judicial system," and then referred the matter to the Arkansas state bar's disciplinary committee.

The Post article repeated comments from students who either approve or disapprove of the award and the invitation to the school, but a couple of statements from supporters say volumes. One student said that because Clinton has "done great things for the country," his presence "reflects favorably on the school." Another student shrugged off the ethical issues saying that they boil down to merely cheating on his wife. Not only are there future lawyers (and presumably faculty members) at Cardozo who shrug off these truly serious ethical problems - problems that have brought dishonor upon the profession of law - they are willing to do so simply because they like the malefactor's politics.

It hasn't been all that long since the enormous and influential American Bar Association itself lowered the ethical standard for attorneys, setting a terrible example for the students at Cardozo - and doing so because it also sympathized with the politics of two disgraced attorneys.

In 1999, eleven days after a federal judge fined him $90,686 for his lies under oath, the ABA invited that same Bill Clinton to deliver the keynote address at its annual meeting. In his speech to the leading lawyers' organization in the country, Clinton remarked that "we cannot expect everyone else in our society to be better unless those of us in the government set a good example."

At the same meeting, the ABA invited another disgraced attorney to speak to its members. Webster Hubbell stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from his clients and partners, was eventually sent to prison, and was in fact under indictment for tax evasion at the time of the meeting.

The ABA exists "to promote throughout the nation the administration of justice and uphold the honor of the profession of law," according to its constitution. It claims that its mission is to "increase . . . respect for the law and to achieve the highest standard of . . . ethical conduct." Oddly enough, it's the same group that demanded disciplinary action against Richard Nixon and other attorneys involved in Watergate, pointing out that their conduct had "cast aspersions upon the integrity of the profession."

The ABA's meeting came and went, but what kind of example did it set for those young lawyers and law students who hear so much about the honor of the legal profession? Despite all the law school classes on professional responsibility, all the lectures they'll hear when they are admitted to the bar, and all the talks they'll sit through in years to come, they will remember those prominent lawyers who run the ABA, leading by example.

Those law students at Cardozo have apparently embraced the ABA's definition of ethical behavior: eschewing integrity for excuses. If the disgraced attorney has the right politics, if he's an old friend, or he's just done "great things for the country," what does a little obstruction of justice or lying under oath matter? It's the wrong way to represent the legal profession, and we can only hope that when it's their turn to begin practicing law, they come to realize what integrity and ethics are really all about.

John Nowacki is deputy director of the Free Congress Foundation's Center for Law and Democracy.

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