I watched 60 Minutes tonight. They broadcast an expose of Manhattan lawyers asked to launder money for a fictional African politician, who was seeking to buy a building, a jet, and a yacht, without divulging the true ownership. Out of the 16 lawyers unknowingly being videotaped, only one flatly refused. The president of the American Bar Association was interviewed. In the videotape, he expressed some reservations and stated that if the funds were gained illegally, he would report the crime. Apparently, the other lawyers expressed no reservations. What was most troubling to me was one lawyer declaring that lawyers would not get in trouble, because lawyers run this country. All of a sudden, I wondered if I was an accomplice in this sleazy behavior.
Lawyers do seem to run this country. President Obama is a lawyer and so is Governor Jay Nixon. Senator Claire MCaskill is also a member of the bar. Jason Kander, my choice for Senator is, guess what, a lawyer. Lawyers have a lot of power in our government. And what about the lobbyists. Lawyers are in the money and power making business, for sure.
Are lawyers up to the task of running this country? I have my doubts whether any profession measures up. I do not know what profession is immune from greed and deceit. Money complicates everything, as does power and sex. I am not here to talk about the corrupting power of sex, but I have wondered if society would be different if humans were devoid of testosterone and estrogen. But, I digress.
I earn my living by accepting contingent fees. That means I am not paid on a regular basis. I am paid when my clients recover. My clients, by and large, cannot afford to pay the hourly fees I could bill in working on a case. In employment discrimination cases, fees through trial usually amount to six figure amounts. It's possible that when a case settles, my client is handsomely compensated, and so am I. I try my darnedest to separate my client's interests from mine. My duty as a lawyer is to my client, not to me, nor my family, nor to the bank holding my mortgage. In theory, I heartily believe in the ethical code and I abhor a lawyer who puts his or her interests ahead of the client's. However, when the bills are due, or my dog is sick, or when my kids need money, or when I want to go on vacation, it is a greater challenge to only consider my client's best interest. I have successfully rationalized my dilemma and have convinced myself that my ethics are intact. But, in reality, what other occupation requires someone to work for hundreds of hours with no immediate pay, and with the real possibility of not getting paid at all. Workers in America expect compensation for their work. I feel that I, in reality, am merely a professional gambler, which doesn't really comport with my perception of what a lawyer should be.
Those lawyers on 60 Minutes are undoubtedly not paid by contingent fee, but to recover their $1,000 an hour hourly fees, they have to get the business. Lawyers are held to high ethical standards, as we should be. But, lawyers, as humans, can be blinded by greed. While I was embarrassed by the 60 Minutes expose, I also understand the dilemma those lawyers who were surreptitiously recorded faced. Fortunately, I can't fathom being asked to launder money, since I have no expertise whatsoever in setting up shell companies or hiding assets. So, my immediate dilemma is avoided. If I had such "expertise," I hope I would act as the lawyer who threw the bums out of his office. I have to believe that I would. I really hope I would. Theoretical moral dilemmas are easier to solve than real ones.
We lawyers rationalize that people hate us because we are misunderstood. We rationalize that people hate us because of the tacky lawyers ads that are beneath those of us who do not buy television time.
We lawyers rationalize that people hate us because of the few bad apples like Saul of "Better Call Saul." Those reasons may partially explain the lawyer hatred dating back to Shakespeare's time. I wonder if other lawyers worry, as I do, that lawyers are really, deep down, hated because sometimes we just act despicably.