Most lawyers are familiar with the line from Shakespeare’s Henry VI by Dick the Butcher: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” What many people do not know is the line is usually taken out of context, for it was referring to sowing discord and anarchy in a backhanded recognition of attorneys’ role in keeping civilization in place.
Recently, in my opinion, some lawyers are dangerously creating anarchy by becoming pundits and opinion makers in an effort to step out of the judicial courtroom and into the courtroom of public opinion. Nationally-known lawyers are seen as commentators and “experts” on news shows furthering political opinion apparently in an effort to increase the value of their own stock.
I question whether this is a role lawyers should take.
Every state has a Code of Professional Responsibility, and every one one of those codes has rules and regulations prohibiting conduct which brings the practice of law into disfavor or ill repute. Lawyer after lawyer has been disbarred or disciplined for conduct that may or may not be criminal, but the conduct is certainly immoral, unprincipled, or shocking to most of society’s morays.
Now lawyers hold more press conferences than ever to shape public opinion. How this conduct does not run afoul of rules against commenting on pending litigation is first on my mind, but in any event, it makes the practice of law unseemly. It is time for state bars to seriously consider prohibiting this conduct because it does nothing to uphold the sanctity of the legal profession.
We are deluged with lawyers making public statements about the legality of this or the constitutionality of that. I see nothing in the principles of the legal profession that puts lawyers into that role. I can remember being asked as an expert on a lawyer’s national TV show whether parents should be jailed for unintentional neglect. My response was that was not for me to say and that we should allow the local courts to decide. Not surprisingly, I was not asked back on the show.
It is especially troubling that lawyers are using their status as lawyers to lend credibility to whatever opinion is being expressed, especially when the opinion is about a political or non-legal issue. Everyone knows that lawyers can argue either side of an issue at any time, so a lawyer expressing an opinion may have little or no weight. The uninformed public does not know this. The media is exploiting a lawyer’s credentials to get viewers or advertising revenue, and I believe this is inappropriate. Even worse, lawyers seeking headlines are creating more problems for their clients than any possible spin factor they were seeking.
Obviously, some of this commentary by lawyers concerns political issues. The present government and its critics have given lawyers plenty to comment about. However, too many times a lawyer publicly comments about active litigation. It appears that more and more often lawyers file a lawsuit and then go on a national tour to publicize themselves and their cause. It doesn’t matter whether it involves a stripper or Hollywood mogul, we are seeing more and more media about pending litigation. The problem is that the media blitz does not fairly portray the merits of the litigation. Instead, it is only concerned with sensationalizing the parties and the issue. When the litigation is dismissed, it is buried deeply in the sports sections or not reported at all.
Lawyers should not be involved in the beating of drums or chests, lest the noble principles of jurisprudence be replaced with the cries of “look at me, look at me!” If reporters want to report on all of these salacious stories to sell their wares, so be it. However, when lawyers are front and center in publicity campaigns, that seems to violate the prohibitions against bringing the law into disrepute.
About the Author
James Gray Robinson, Esq. was a third-generation trial attorney, specializing in family law, for 27 years in his native North Carolina up until 2004. Since then he has become an individual and business consultant who works with a wide range of people, professional organizations, and leading corporations. Robinson’s mission is for all people to have fulfilling, peaceful career experiences and work environments. At the age of 64, Gray passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney.