Doing good if you aren’t doing well
‘Ethicist’ leads talk on lawyering amid economic downturn
Three prominent attorneys and The New York Times Magazine’s popular “Ethicist” columnist took part in a law symposium blending legal ethics with talmudic law and a touch of comedy.
Much of the Sept. 23 event in Morristown, sponsored by Chabad of Southeast Morris County, focused on the recession and its impact on personal and profession ethics.
Moderated by Randy Cohen, whose column appears weekly in the magazine, the attorneys addressed such topics as providing legal help for the poor and practicing a legal specialty beyond one’s area of expertise.
“It would be beyond our purview to examine the question of whether or not you should have an affair,” said Cohen, whose background is as a comedy writer, not a lawyer or theologian. “But it would be within our purview to examine the question of whether or not you should have an affair with a client,” he said, drawing laughter from some 300 attendees, most of them attorneys, in the ballroom of the Madison Hotel.
“You shouldn’t,” he added.
Noting that most professions are bound by canons of ethics, Cohen said, “Even interior decorators have a formal written code of conduct. Apparently there are things you can do to a sofa that are an affront to human dignity.”
In his opening remarks, John Farmer, dean of Rutgers Law School in Newark, said that in tough economic times, some attorneys might be tempted to take on work they are not competent to do, a violation of legal ethics — if not the law.
“The bromide that ‘your greatest need is my specialty’ really shouldn’t be adopted,” said Farmer, a former state attorney general under Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.
Seconding this notion, Cohen quipped, “No patient would go to a gynecologist who decided to keep the office humming by doing a little cardiology on the side.”
Rabbi Michael Broyde, who doubles as a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta and a judge of Jewish law at the Beth Din of America — a rabbinical court based in New York — said, however, that attorneys are not required to limit their practices to their legal specialties.
To be ethical, lawyers have “to look at themselves in the mirror and say, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’” he said.
‘No cutting corners’
Katherine Hayden, a United States district court judge in Newark, recalled her earlier experience in disciplining colleagues who committed ethical violations.
“So much of what we do in policing our profession and trying to take care of ourselves bears that stamp of ‘There but for the grace of God, I could be that person,” she said.
Broyde told the story of a kindergarten child who asked to explain what his father did for a living. “He plays piano in a whorehouse,” said the boy.
Confronted by the teacher, the father said, “That’s not really what I do. I am a lawyer for a cigarette company, but how could I express that to my child?”
Broyde warned his fellow attorneys, “We dare not cut corners. We should not, we need not, we may not violate the law governing lawyers…. What the Jewish tradition puts on the table here is a reminder to be more ethical, rather than less.”
Cohen raised the issue of poor people being unable to afford adequate legal help. Hayden lamented that poverty is “creating a society in which one of every 100 adults is in prison.”
Broyde encouraged his fellow attorneys to be generous with their time as well as their money.
“It’s easy to think when you talk of giving your time that what you mean is giving it to a synagogue,” he said. “But the truth is, when a lawyer represents a client pro bono, that is the most important activity a lawyer can undertake.”
Hayden urged attorneys to assist needy people with such legal matters as voting rights and child support payments and to help them avoid costly court appearances by “sitting next to a person who would not otherwise know how to fumble through all of the red tape.”