Is a Plagiarist a Trustworthy Attorney? Let’s Ask Mary Frances Prevost!

This is me, apparently.

San Diego criminal defense attorney Mary Frances Prevost has an interesting post on her blog about the ethics of George Zimmerman’s first set of attorneys.

MINE.

You wouldn’t know it was mine, of course, because blogger/attorney/ former Washington Post journalist Prevost has slapped her own name on it. There it is, right at the beginning: “by Mary Francis Prevost.” I think that’s interesting.

Her post, entitled “The Trayvon Martin Case Trainwreck: George Zimmerman’s Attorneys Need To Shut Up!”, was posted the same day as the Ethics Alarms post, “Next To Board The Trayvon Martin Ethics Train Wreck? Why, The Lawyers, Of Course!”, which began, coincidentally enough, by quoting John Steel’s post from the Legal Ethics Forum that read, “[S]hut up, guys. Shut the h*** up.”  It was two introductory paragraphs later, however, when “her” post got into the substance of “her” analysis of the ethical problems with the farewell press conference given by George Zimmerman’s attorneys shortly before the shooter of Trayvon Martin was charged, however, that I really began getting a serious dose of deja vu, also known as “Holy crap! This woman stole my article!”

To wit:

Ethics Alarms: “Rule 1.16 of the Rules of Professional Conduct says you can quit. The rule also says, however, that “…a lawyer must take all reasonable steps to mitigate the consequences to the client.” One of those reasonable steps is not to make your withdrawal a major news story.”

Prevost: “Rule 1.16 of the Rules of Professional Conduct says a lawyer can quit if there is a conflict. But the rule also says that “…a lawyer must take all reasonable steps to mitigate the consequences to the client.” One of those reasonable steps is not to make your withdrawal a major news story.”

Ethics Alarms: “They had lost touch with their client. That’s nobody’s business but theirs and Zimmerman’s. Now they are creating suspicion that Zimmerman is on the run, which makes him seem guilty to potential jurors, as well as others.”

Prevost: “The attorneys stated in their press conference to the world that they had lost touch with their client. That’s nobody’s business but theirs and Zimmerman’s. Now they are creating suspicion that Zimmerman is on the run, which makes him seem guilty to potential jurors, as well as others.”

Ethics Alarms: “Zimmerman is not answering the phone. Again: provocative, and a fact that the lawyers are obligated to keep to themselves, not broadcast to the world.”

Prevost: “The attorneys stated in their press conference to the world that Zimmerman is not answering the phone. This again creates a suspicion, and it is a fact that the lawyers are obligated to keep to themselves, not broadcast to the world.”

Ethics Alarms: “They thought Zimmerman was still in the United States, but probably not in Florida. How does revealing this, which is pure speculation (but speculation based on confidential information) do anything but harm to Zimmerman? The lawyers, Craig Sonner and Hal Uhrig, are not supposed to be doing a play-by-play broadcast of the client’s activities. They are obligated to be helping him, not getting their faces on the evening news.”

Prevost: “The attorneys told the world that they thought Zimmerman was still in the United States, but probably not in Florida. How does revealing this, which is pure speculation (but speculation based on confidential information) do anything but harm to Zimmerman? The lawyers, Craig Sonner and Hal Uhrig, are not supposed to be doing a play-by-play broadcast of the client’s activities. They are obligated to be helping him, not getting their faces on the evening news.”

Ethics Alarms: “Zimmerman had contacted the special prosecutor against their advice. Their advice to Zimmerman is not for public consumption.”

Prevost: “The attorneys told the world that Zimmerman had contacted the special prosecutor against their advice. Their advice to Zimmerman is not for public consumption.”

Ethics Alarms: “Zimmerman had contacted Fox host and conservative radio commentator Sean Hannity. Does disclosing this information help Zimmerman in any way? No. By this time, the lawyers were just spilling their guts, and their client be damned.”

Prevost: “The attorneys told the world that Zimmerman had contacted Fox commentator Sean Hannity. Does disclosing this information help Zimmerman in any way? No. By this time, the lawyers were just spilling their guts, and their client be damned.”

Ethics Alarms: “They expressed concern about Zimmerman’s “emotional and physical safety” and said he may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Their concerns, based on their contact (or lack of it) with their client are, again, not appropriate information to be made public.”

Prevost: “And the piece de resistence (drum roll, please!) is that Sonner and Uhrig expressed concern about Zimmerman’s “emotional and physical safety” and said he may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Their concerns, based on their contact (or lack of it) with their client are, again, not appropriate information to be made public.”

These doppelgangers of my points were also presented exactly as mine were, as bullet points, and in the same order. As John Travolta says to Nicholas Cage in “Face-Off” (actually, it’s Nicholas Cage with John Travolta’s face saying it to John Trav…oh, never mind..): “What a coinkydink!”

___________________________________________________________________

UPDATE: Prevost’s astounding response to my queries about her plagiarism is discussed here.

___________________________________________________________________

To her credit, Prevost was able to compose her own closing paragraphs, though they have a special irony. She chided Zimmerman’s ex-attorneys for their faulty ethics, while illicitly and dishonestly appropriating the work of another lawyer and legal ethicist to show how unethical they were. Besides, if she was going to steal my post, she might as well have stolen the last part, which was better than her version.

If Prevost’s website is to be believed—but then, it can’t be, can it?—she has some impressive credentials. She’s a member of many distinguished legal groups and associations, as well as the Inns of Court, which teaches young lawyers about ethics. Her law practice has three branches, and she defends citizens accused of everything from DUI and civil rights abuses to murder. A lot of desperate people place their trust in her, and for some of these, their lives are on the line. The ethics rules require lawyers in every jurisdiction (but one) to report an attorney for professional discipline when they believe that attorney “has committed a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct that raises a substantial question as to that lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects.”  Should I report Mary Frances Prevost to her bar associations?

How intentional copyright infringement and plagiarism, defined as copying the work of another without quoting or attribution, should be interpreted within this definition is unclear. A few years ago, Iowa disciplined a lawyer for copying a law review article into a brief without attribution, which was, if nothing else, strict: briefs traditionally use the words of others, and lawyers do not truly claim original authorship by placing their names on them. Still, the Iowa Supreme Court regarded such extensive lifting of another work as deceit and misrepresentation.

Stealing material for an attorney blog is, as far as I can see, uncharted territory, and I am on record as having less tolerance for intentional misrepresentation and dishonesty online that almost any lawyer or legal ethics authority I know. I can’t say with certainly that what Prevost did by representing my work–my research, my concept, my ideas, my argument and my exact words—as her own is a technical violation of the Rules. It would definitely be one if it were a criminal, rather than a civil, violation of copyright law, but she’s not selling the blog post. I regard it as advertising, since it is on her firm website, and to the extent that her false by-line represents my expertise, analysis and writing ability as her own, I think a good argument could be made that this is false legal advertising, which is definitely a violation of the Rules. Still, I’m not certain: for example, a majority of lawyers tell me that as long as John Edwards, whom I would not trust to walk my goat, didn’t break any laws, the fact that he is the slimiest, most dastardly cur to walk on two legs doesn’t mean he isn’t still a crackerjack lawyer. Personally, I think that’s nuts, but I’m in a tiny minority.

I am certain of this, though, whether it would lead to actual bar discipline or not. A lawyer who would intentionally take another lawyer’s article and publish the guts of it as her own should not be trusted, because plagiarism is a lifetime habit, and it suggests serious and alarming character deficiencies. Obviously, it’s a Golden Rule violation. Misappropriating the work of another also shows selfishness, laziness, and disrespect. I encourage readers to use everything on Ethics Alarms, as I did on the Ethics Scoreboard. I am asked for permission via e-mail all the time, and grant it immediately: it takes the inquirers—teachers, pastors, other lawyers, ethicists, publishers—the time required to compose one short message (or, in Prevost’s case, steal one message).  All I ask is an acknowledgment. This requirement, of course, precludes someone from claiming authorship of what I wrote, which explains why Mary Frances never contacted me.

The conduct raises important questions. How valid are her academic credentials? Was plagiarism her strategy to get good grades in high school, to achieve academic success in college, to make the law journal in law school? She says she was a journalist. Hmmmm. How many of her news stories were plagiarized too?

More than anything else, plagiarism shows a willingness to cut corners—to cheat— rather than do required work. Does someone accused of murder really want to trust a lawyer whose modus operandi is to do the least amount of work they can get away with? I wouldn’t. Taking credit for another writer’s work is also dishonest in two ways: it is a form of theft, and it’s a lie. If a lawyer will lie about this, what else will she lie about? What else has she lied about? I haven’t taken the time to search for other plagiarized posts among her blog entries, but I’d be surprised if I am the only one robbed by Ms. Prevost.

Let’s take an inventory, shall we? A lawyer who surreptitiously takes the work of another and represents it on a law firm blog as her own has violated the ethical principles of…

  • Honesty in conduct
  • Honesty in word
  • Integrity
  • Diligence
  • Fairness
  • Respect

…and professional courtesy. If the legal profession and bar associations  say that this doesn’t make Mary Frances untrustworthy for the practice of law, that’s an indictment of the profession’s ethical standards. Her ethical standards are not a matter of debate.

46 thoughts on “Is a Plagiarist a Trustworthy Attorney? Let’s Ask Mary Frances Prevost!

  1. Here’s a thought: you could appropriate her headshot and start using it as yours. She may be a lying plagiaristic weasel, but she’s cuter ‘n you. 😉

  2. Maybe something about the ethics biz invites cheating. I just failed a student in my business ethics class for copying a 10-page paper from the web. That makes three in the last three years.

  3. Report her! Plagarism is serious business -serious enough to get kicked out of college nowadays. Or you could call her out on her own blog. But I guess public humiliation would be unethical?

      • Ok, I guess I have enough indignation for both of us on this one because I went to her facebook page to ‘like’ your comment. Did you notice that in March she put up a link to one of her blog posts on Chris Brown and then below types her own comment in which reads…. ‘Two criminal blogs plagiarized this.’ I wonder….

  4. I just spotted this when her site came up as I Googled another issue… I pulled up your site to make sure they were the same…. alas, too late. I got scooped.

  5. The irony here leaves me speechless, though not, apparently, enough to keep me quiet. Let’s see what we have here: some lazy, unethical lawyer on the West Coast apparently reads your morning East Coast ethics blog and STEALS YOUR PIECE ON — AHEM — THE ETHICS OF LAWERLY BEHAVIOR???

    If it weren’t so sickening, it would be hilarious! But the “humor” of it fades completely when one considers the mindset of a lawyer who (1) actually steals intellectual property from another lawyer; (2) has the ego or chutzpah to think “no one will notice;” and (3) does not have the moral fiber or ethical mindset which would force her internally to cite her source, and simply say “This is important enough that my readers should benefit from another person’s thinking?”!!!

    With luck I will never find myself on the West Coast and in need of criminal defense. Should that worst case ever occur, however, I have Ms. Prevost at the top of Elizabeth’s “run away!” list. Actually, i think I’ll check out “Ange’s List” and see if it includes lawyers. Or you, Jack, can start a “Jack’s List” of your own.

    Years ago a colleague of mine admitted (with s smile) that he cheated his way through his entire Ph.D. program. I was horrified, and was able to honestly say I had hever cheated in my life. At the time, it was enough to mortify him and consider him an aberration. In the years since, I’ve learned … and grown up. Ms. Prevost, you are both our present and our future, and you scare the hell out of me. This will surely date me, but someone may recall the “Pogo” cartoon wherein he says,” “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  6. Jack: You have obviously jumped to a conclusion here that may be unwarranted. Perhaps she is “Channeling” you or isn’t there that old illustration of the infnite number of monkeys and an infinite number of typewriters…

  7. I dont understand how people can claim that a play is “theirs” and they “own it” just because they put some words in a certain “order”. Its not like they invented the “words” them selves. They just aranged them, so I should be able to perform their play with out paying them a performance fee , becuase its not like they “own” the words.

    The above was something an actor I care a great deal about and think the world of actually said to me about paying performance fees. I was so shocked that a person i respected was either oblivious to why she shoulkd have to pay such a fee or was dumb enough to share such an idea with me.

  8. Doing a little spot checking:

    http://www.californiacriminallawyerblog.com/2011/03/california_criminal_defense_fe.html
    — vs. —
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/03/11/BANJ1I9HC3.DTL

    or

    http://www.californiacriminallawyerblog.com/2010/07/judge_says_orange_county_sheri.html
    — vs. —
    http://taxdollars.ocregister.com/2010/07/12/officers-used-excessive-force-ruling-suggests/60459/

    or:

    http://www.californiacriminallawyerblog.com/2012/04/civil_rights_ny_prison_loses_b.html
    — vs. —
    Warning, NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/11/nyregion/destroyed-surveillance-video-called-key-to-inmates-lawsuit.html

    Lookrs like an RSS scraper. Sometimes she includes the byline of the person who originally wrote the article, sometimes she includes a link like there was information in the source material that she copied. She tried to edit yours, which is even worse.

    What do you want to bet she’s going to claim fair use, or that you should be happy that she “improved” your article?

    • err… sometimes she includes a link like she used the source material and wrote more…or the link was included in whatever she copied from.

    • Thanks for doing the scut work, tgt. I’ve been chatting over at the legal ethics list serv. One lawyer-blogger of note points out that a lot of lawyers contract out their blogs, and Ms. Prevost may not even be aware that this is going on. She’s still responsible and accountable of course, and the ethics rules charge her with making sure non-lawyers she hires as her agents don’t do anything she couldn’t do.

      • In my opinion, you are giving her way too much rope in this comment, Jack. Keep your indignation focused – she is on the far, far side of the line labelled ‘wrong’ and it is not justifiable in any way! If she is too busy to be aware of what is put out with her name on it, she should not be contracting the service out. She should stop blogging or share properly no matter who is doing it. You don’t contract out a service and then allow the contractor to destroy your legitimately good reputation. No one responsible does that, even if busy. If her reputation mattered to her beyond who she could fool to make how much cash, she’d be paying attention – which tgt clearly shows she is not. Finally, if tgt can find that many examples and she can’t even find one…. does anyone really want a lawyer that inattentive?

        We use other people’s blog posts and articles all the time in our business and always give credit and link back. We sometimes take an idea from another’s blog post and yet by the time our post is written, it turns out completely different from the original article. In that case, we still credit with, “inspiration taken from…”. Content management and creation is a huge, often thankless job. Unless, of course, you just steal it.

  9. I enjoyed this post. I am glad to see you analyze the range of ethical issues that arise in relation to plagiarism. The problem with plagiarism isn’t just that it breaks certain laws, rules, regulations, or contracts. One problem is that the act is dishonest, and is used as a way for people to avoid doing the hard work that is required of them to perform their jobs or gain certain credentials.

    As a college instructor, I have a few concerns to add to your analysis. I’m afraid our educational system is failing to foster values that prevent behavior like Prevost’s by failing to explain (a) the underlying reasons for why plagiarism is wrong, and (b) what actually counts as plagiarism. Many students in my classes (even senior-level!) frequently think that if they manipulate the syntax of a sentence, the work becomes their own and they do not have to cite it. It’s such a frequent issue that I wonder whether Prevost, with all of her credentials and accolades, actually engaged in INTENTIONAL plagiarism.

    How does this happen?

    There are a few causes, I think—and they arise from how the school (and, in fact, our country’s entire education system) functions as a whole. While there are many causes, I will discuss three.

    First, to cut costs, schools are increasingly making classes bigger and piling more classes on instructors, which cuts down on the time they have to actually review each paper. This includes checking for plagiarism. Also, the sheer number of students also makes it impossible to detect disruptions in the patterns of students’ writing styles, which can alert a teacher to the use of plagiarism. Some of these schools also fail to fund technology like TurnItIn that makes it easy to check an entire paper for plagiarism.

    Second, student evaluations often play a strong role in decisions about whether to grant people tenure. And they should. The problem is that the people reviewing the applications often don’t know how to interpret them. Professors that offer the easiest A often get the highest rankings. Also, few students give comments, and administrators frequently don’t take the time to review the few comments provided. It’s important to take student feedback into account, but using it this way often rewards the professors who fail to check for plagiarism and fail to challenge their students as they should. If we want to use student feedback, we need to find a better way to collect it.

    Third, I suspect that many instructors burn out, and lose the motivation to do their jobs well. I get it, it’s exhausting. Especially under the conditions I just described. But teachers sometimes forget that they have an obligation to the students, and not just to the administration. Sometimes teachers simply cannot help students learn to recognize plagiarism, use grammar properly, and gain a foundation in the basic principles in writing and analysis in addition to covering the required course material. However, there are other times that teachers get fed up and simply stop doing their jobs as a way of punishing the administration. What they don’t realize is that because the system as a whole is designed to promote other goals, such as to make money, their burn-out behavior only punishes the students—it does not punish those responsible for creating the situation in which they do not feel empowered to do their jobs.

    Also, it’s important to note that this is one situation in which it would be a mistake to put too much blame on the administration, or on any one branch of the school. I believe the root causes are systems-based, and require a systems-based solution.

    Finally, by discussing these underlying causes, I do not mean to deflect blame from Prevost’s behavior. We are all responsible for conducting ourselves ethically. I just mean to shed light on how your educational system can contribute to a national culture that makes it too easy to rationalize this bad behavior.

      • Thanks, Deborah. That looks interesting, and I think such training in academic integrity is a good first step. However, like other types of organizational ethics training, it will do little good on its own. Colleges, universities, and other schools need to show that academic honesty MATTERS–and that means that they need to consistently enforce their expectations. Failure to do so sends the message that the training is all for show.

        That being said, it’s nice to see good resources like this one out there; and they form an important part of an overall strategy to combat plagiarism.

  10. Her post, entitled “The Trayvon Martin Case Trainwreck: George Zimmerman’s Attorneys Need To Shut Up!”

    While it certainly seems clear that Prevost felt entitled to copy your writing, her post was not actually “entitled” that.

    It was, rather, simply “titled.”

    People who are owed something are entitled.

    But books and articles and blog posts are titled.

    (Yes, the dictionary will show you both definitions for “entitled,” but that’s only because its misuse has forced lexicographers to grudgingly give way.)

  11. If you want to report her to the Bar Assn. let me know. She charged me $15,000, appeared in court 3 days, and then refused to give me my file when she quit, even though the judge ordered her to do so. She did no investigative work and treated me like dirt when I was suffering from PTSD after a false arrest, incarceration, and malicious prosecution. When I went to her office in San Diego she almost had me arrested for just sitting in a chair. This woman has some real issues.

        • Are you aware that she was was charged in 1987 with stabbing the girlfriend of a former flame in Virginia? How did she EVER get into law school let alone be allowed to practice law? I also enjoyed reading of her ethical problems with the California Bar. It appears to still be “pending”. Methinks we have a very practiced sociopath here

  12. Charged? She’s a convicted double Felon in Virginia. My understanding that it was a former lover that tried to break off their relationship. Ms Prevost is a certified psychopath. I too am not sure how she was able to gain a license through the California BAR.

    • Apparently something happened in 2002 as well, but the inability to practice law only lasted 1 month. She is apparently fighting it, as it is says “pending”…I’m sure she will do a good sales job and get reinstated. That’s what she has been trained to do…convince people that she was justified in doing what she did. Only time will tell, but thanks for the update.

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