A Professional Ethics Case Study…From Broadway

Before you read the post, can you guess who that actor is in the Afro?

Lately I’ve been helping a lot of lawyers seeking to create so-called Rule 5.4 law firms in the District of Columbia. In these firms, unique to the District, non-lawyers can be full partners. This means that they can share in the firm’s fees, which is something otherwise forbidden and a major ethics breach in the 50 states. Lawyers cannot, must not, dare not share their fees with non-lawyers…unless those non-lawyers are partners in the same firm.

There are certain requirements for that to happen, and the main one is that the non-lawyers must be supervised by a lawyer in the firm to ensure that the non-lawyers don’t engage in conduct that would be unethical for a lawyer.  The legal profession is justifiably wary that the unique priorities of the legal profession cannot be easily absorbed or understood by those who have been trained and influenced in a different culture.

It is right to be wary. Lawyers have enough trouble avoiding violations of their own rules; doctors, accountants and others, steeped in different alignments of values, can’t just shift gears like suddenly being in a law firm is like test driving a sports car. For so-called “non professionals,” a category that is increasingly contentious, it may be even harder to adjust, if not impossible.

Lawyers are often  overly optimistic about their non-lawyer partners’ ability to learn the importance of keeping all client confidences, not crossing over into the unauthorized practice of law, sensing possible conflicts of interest and illicitly soliciting clients, or engaging in misrepresentation and deceit, to name just a few. Lawyers tend to think that all professional ethics should be fungible. It’s a dangerous misconception, and there is a little cautionary tale from, of all places, Broadway, that illustrates it.

It has been mostly forgotten, but in 1969, a musical called“Buck White” opened at the George Abbott Theater. Its unlikely star: draft-resisting ex-heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Set at a meeting of a black militant group, the show  was an adaptation of the play “Time Buck White” that had  successful runs in Philadelphia and Off Broadway, and the musical adaptation had played to critical raves in San Francisco. Ali had been stripped of his boxing title in 1967 for refusing to join the army and go to Vietnam. Despite no stage experience, he agreed to play Buck White, a messianic leader who appears at a meeting of a disorganized group called B.A.D. (Beautiful Alleluia Days) and galvanizes them with fiery speeches and songs.

I’ve cast completely inexperienced performers in big roles on occasion, when I was absolutely certain that the individual was a so-called “natural.” I would have cast Ali. Such talents are raw, but as long as they are willing to work and take direction, and are portraying a character that they resemble in key respects, natural performers can be very effective, even brilliant.

The producer, Zev Buman, related what happened. “The final preview was the most astonishing theatrical event I ever lived through,” he said.  “Ali was brilliant. Forget Harry Belafonte. Forget anyone who ever did ‘Porgy and Bess.’ I have never seen anyone or anything like it, the way he captured the stage with a charisma that got people on their feet for five straight minutes. We went to the dressing rooms, we hugged, we celebrated. We thought we had a hit.”

But Ali was never that good again. He was flat on opening night, and flat in all the subsequent performances. He went through the motions; his charisma was missing.  The show was panned, and closed the same week.

You see, the Broadway professionals didn’t realize that boxers do not think like actors. Actors know that they must prepare to rise to every performance as if it were the only one. That’s part of their unwritten but ancient ethics code. Professional boxers are different: they train hard for a single fight, their performance, and give everything they have. When it’s over, the experience is erased, and no longer a motivation. The next fight may be in a month or a year, and they prepare for that.  Doing the same thing at the same level day after day is completely alien to their culture. Maybe Ali could have been prepared to adjust to the professional ethics of stage performing, but nobody thought that was necessary until it was too late.

“I went backstage,” Buffman said. “Ali looked at me, and he said, ‘Boss, we’re in trouble, huh?’ I said, ‘Tell me what happened.’ He said, ‘I fought my fight yesterday at the preview. I came to fight again tonight but I was done.’”

9 thoughts on “A Professional Ethics Case Study…From Broadway

    • Thanks for writing about something other than the crooked media, Wuhan, Joe Biden, and the Clintons. I needed a distraction. Oh, and my left shoulder hurts.

      Interesting analogy. Ali was iconic in many ways, full of hubris, narcissism, and vinegar. You either loved him or hated him. My grandfather thought Ali was the best boxer there ever was. My uncle thought Ali was a blow hard, favoring Joe Lewis. My dad enjoyed the Ali-Foreman Era but that’s about it. Me? I listened to Rush’s “2112” in 1976 and that was it for me and boxing.


      • I am certain, had he not sustained brain damage in the ring, that Ali would have made it big in acting or as a TV personality. Heck, Typson and Foreman did it, and Ali was quicker and more charismatic than either. Too bad.

  1. “Boss, we’re in trouble, huh? I fought my fight yesterday at the preview. I came to fight again tonight but I was done.”

    Whew! With dialogue like that line, the play could have won a Tony.

    “When you’re a ballplayer, there ain’t much to bein’ a ballplayer.”

  2. This is a fascinating story. Thanks for sharing it!

    And what a great illustration of how crossing over from one profession to another isn’t as easy as it may seem.

    • Oh, but A.M., all actors are experts on any and every thing: public health, economics, politics, gender, military strategy and tactics, incarceration practices, international relations, all things behavioral and scientific, Supreme Court decisions and members. You name it, they’re the kings and queens of the world. Just ask them.

  3. As I started reading this I thought about a Software Engineer partnering with a lawyer and my blood pressure shot up.

    I wouldn’t trust 99.9% of my fellow software people doing that. I might not even trust myself.

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