“The sharp employ the sharp; verily, a man may be known by his attorney.”
Douglas William Jerrold
Criminal lawyers are often required to represent those among us who are morally and ethically challenged. Their role as guardians of the rights of all of us is crucial to our democracy and their choice of clients does not usually reflect negatively on their character.
As for the rest of us lawyers, who we agree to represent says something about us. In my experience, the quote set out above is accurate. The sharp do employ the sharp. However, the quote does not go far enough. In my many years or practice, I also observed that the dishonest employed the dishonest; the bullies employed the bullies; the scuzzy employed the scuzzy and the cheap employed the cheap. You truly can tell something about a lawyer based on who his or her clients are, and vice versa.
In my desire to build a client base and having had some naive ideas about human nature and my duties as a lawyer, there were several occasions when my agreement to represent people of dubious character came back to bite me.
My first experience was with a client who alleged that the person who he was dealing with was committing fraud. As lawyers often do (especially early in their careers) I chose to believe him and promptly engaged with the other party’s lawyer who devoted considerable energy to trying to convince me that his client was as pure as the driven snow and the fraud artist was actually my client.
Of course, I did not believe him. Ultimately in frustration he gave up, saying: “Murray, we are paid to believe our own clients,” a phrase which stuck with me for quite some time and offered me a small degree of comfort when it turned out that my client was in fact the fraud artist, and among his accomplishments was defrauding me out of my legal fees.
My next experience was not quite as benign. In that case, I chose to represent someone who had been convicted of securities fraud in the past but who I chose to believe was reformed. He retained me to assist him to negotiate his way out of a shareholders dispute arising from his latest (and which he convinced me was his last) less than appropriate conduct. I negotiated a settlement agreement with the counsel for his partner, who hated my client and by extension did not seem to think much of me for representing him.
However, I stayed true to my belief that everyone was entitled to legal counsel and that it was my duty to do my best for him. As part of the settlement, there was an amount that our firm was required to hold in trust to be released to the other side’s counsel at a later date. Another lawyer (not me, actually, really, I promise) in my firm who I had asked to help with the closing made a mistake and sent the trust funds to the client. Of course, the firm then had to replenish the trust account from its own funds. The client absconded with the money.
All of that would have been bad enough, but just a few years later I was representing one of the most honest and honourable clients who I had ever met in a bitter shareholders dispute. For important strategic reasons, it was necessary for us to advise our client to take several steps without notice to the other parties to the dispute, which while perfectly appropriate, gave the other side the opportunity to try to make something out of the lack of transparency. Who shows up for the other side? The very same lawyer who had acted opposite me when I was representing the fraud artist who had absconded with the trust funds. We eventually convinced him that everything that we had done in the matter was above-board, but the job of convincing him was made all the harder because in his mind I was the type of lawyer who represented dishonest people.
George Bernard Shaw said “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”
Lawyers need to think about who they choose to represent and how it will impact their reputation.
And one more quote, this time from William Shakespeare:
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, Is the immediate jewel of their souls: Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands: But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed.