Every lawyer has a story about why he or she decided to become a lawyer, and so do I. Happily for all, I have no intention of sharing mine, at least not quite so early in the week. Instead, I want take a detour down a different road, which promises a few more interesting distractions along the way. My topic, at least in a broad sense, is legal ethics.
I know what you’re thinking. For God’s sake, not again. But bear with me. First, let’s take a moment to get our historical bearings. We are living in one of those periods that blow in on the political winds every few years when lawyers, bless their hearts, can seem to do nothing right, not in the eyes of doctors, not in the eyes of big corporations, certainly not from the media’s perspective, not from the point of view of our President, very definitely not in the opinion of Rush Limbaugh. But wait. Hold on just a moment. I’m thinking of a time when I was just a little boy . . .
And on the TV, as I was passing through the living room to get a basketball out of the closet, my parents were watching those hearings on TV. You know, those hearings. The Watergate hearings. The break-in. Those plumbers. CREEP. What did he know and when did he know it. The Saturday Night Massacre. Deep Throat. A cancer on the Presidency.
You think public opinion about lawyers is bad today? In the early 1970s, there was really something for the country to be bellyaching about. I didn’t learn the full extent of the scandal at the time, of course, because I was only nine years old and had a date to play basketball. But fast forward twelve years. It was 1985, just after I had graduated from college. I was living in Phoenix, where I was going to begin my career as a fundraising consultant. I knew absolutely nothing about law or lawyers. Even so, I was thoroughly enjoying a four-part series in the New Yorker by Paul Brodeur about asbestos litigation. Today it would be politically incorrect, perhaps even indictable, but Paul Brodeur had cast Ron Motley, Fred Baron, and other trial lawyers as heroes, and I was fascinated, despite the fact that I was continually forgetting the meaning of unfamiliar legal terms like “plaintiff” and “deposition.”
But the seed was planted, and I went in search of more books about lawyers, and I struck gold when I discovered the many about the Watergate mess, which had all recently been bestsellers but were now available as cheap paperbacks at a used bookstore in Scottsdale. It was the beginning of my six-month infatuation with the history of Watergate. It was lots of fun, and now I recommend a Watergate infatuation to everyone, because even if you don’t want to be instructed (and who does), you’ll be wonderfully entertained, and you’ll get instructed as a by-product of the entertainment along the way. If you haven’t had a Watergate period but want one, start with All the President’s Men (Woodward and Berstein) then move on to The Final Days (Berstein). With these two easy reads, you’ll get your bearings and can then move on to any of hundreds of books on the subject. (And after you’ve absorbed the basic outline of events, be sure to rent Dick, a recent comedy that’s very funny as long as you have a context for understanding the jokes.)
These days, hardly anyone talks about Watergate, which is unfortunate but understandable, with all the really good scandals having superseded it, scandals like Iran-Contra, Whitewater, and the recent marriage of Britney Spears. But Watergate remains with us in spirit, especially for anyone suffering through the rigors of law school, since he or she will have to take a class on legal ethics (today’s topic, remember), and that class will owe its existence to reforms that were made in the post-Watergate era. The thinking went something like this: we must blame someone, how about the lawyers, let’s just be sure to spruce them up in the future with a mandatory class on legal ethics.
Not that lawyers can’t stand a little sprucing up from time to time. As for me, my brief foray into the history of Watergate only made me more interested in the idea of becoming a lawyer, which is why I’ve now come full circle to conclude an anecdote I promised at the outset not to tell. Sorry.
[Like this post? It's one of many included in my book How to Feed a Lawyer (And Other Irreverent Oberservations from the Legal Underground). Details here.]