A shocking story in the New York Times has the legal ethics world buzzing. I just added the issues to an ethics seminar I’m preparing for this month; I wrote a song parody about it, in fact. For some reason, a Times reporter finally found out about a self-published memoir by criminal defense lawyer Peter De Blasio that came out about a year ago. The book, “Let Justice Be Done,” reveals among its other tales of his legal career the truth of his most famous case, and one of his most successful. DeBlasio had convinced a jury to acquit his client, Dominic Byrne, of kidnapping in the sensational Samuel Bronfman Jr. abduction case in 1975, though the evidence pointing to his guilt was overwhelming.
What made DeBlasio’s defense strategy work was the testimony of the mastermind of the kidnapping plot, a spectacularly talented liar named Mel Patrick Lynch. He took the stand and claimed that the 21 year-old Seagrams heir had planned his own kidnapping, and that he, Lynch, was the young man’s gay lover. Lynch was unshakable under cross examination even though his elaborate story made no sense. Realizing that the jury was buying the tale, and that the prosecution was unprepared to discredit it, DeBlasio exploited the story to persuade the jurors that the dimwitted Byrne was innocent of kidnapping, though he would be convicted of extortion. In the end, both Byrne and Lynch served less than four years in prison.
The Colangelos (though she goes by the name of Barbara Bottini)
This isn’t exactly a social media ethics story, not entirely. Yes, it reinforces the Ethics Alarms position that Twitter makes you stupid, and that it is an ethics disaster waiting to happen for the impulsive and the unwary. The main ethics lesson, however, lies elsewhere,
Bryan Colangelo resigned as the president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers two weeks ago despite leading his perennially doormat team to the NBA play-offs this season for the first time in many years. He resigned in the middle of a Twitter scandal. The Ringer, a sports website, received an anonymous tip from someone who claimed that he or she had linked five anonymous Twitter accounts to Colangelo. The accounts had all tweeted about internal matters relating to the 76ers players, personnel and business, even, in one tweet, defending Colangelo for his eccentric shirt collar style, which had been the topic of some social media mockery.
The Ringer contacted the 76ers, but only told the organization about two of the suspicious accounts, not all five. Colangelo informed the team that one of them, @Phila1234567, was indeed his, but insisted that he had never posted anything using it. Coincidentally, or probably not, the other three accounts that the Ringer had not revealed were suddenly switched from public to private after the 76ers had their little talk. After the Ringer published The Mystery Of The Insider Tweets, the 76ers hired a large New York law firm to conduct an independent investigation. Over the course of a week, the firm collected several suspicious laptops and mobile phones (well, it was the owners who were really the suspected ones; you can’t blame the devices), and retrieved text messages and emails. Investigators also analyzed the involved Twitter accounts to try to determine who was behind them. Continue reading
Ethically challenged left-wing website Salon somehow found an ethically challenged law professor, Cassandra Burke Robertson, to justify the leaks in the Trump Administration. Robertson, despite being a Distinguished Research Scholar and the Director of the Center for Professional Ethics at Case Western Reserve Law School, advocates unethical and sanctionable conduct in a jaw-dropping post, “When is a leak ethical?”
Here, professor, I’ll fix your misleading and dishonest article for you: It’s NEVER ethical to leak.
She begins by noting “I am a scholar of legal ethics who has studied ethical decision-making in the political sphere.” Wow, that’s amazing….since she apparently is hopelessly confused about both, or just pandering to Salon’s pro-“resistance” readers.
“Undoubtedly, leaking classified information violates the law. For some individuals, such as lawyers, leaking unclassified but still confidential information may also violate the rules of professional conduct.”
1. It is always unethical to break the law, unless one is engaging in civil disobedience and willing to accept the consequences of that legal breach. By definition, leakers do not do this, but act anonymously. Thus leakers of classified information, lawyers or not, are always unethical, as well as criminal.
2. Lawyers may not reveal confidences of their clients, except in specified circumstances. Here is D.C. ‘s rule (my bolding): Continue reading
As those who have read here for a while know, among my fondest passions, virtually life-long, are baseball, theater and ethics. Today, I have the pleasure of seeing them all come together in a single event. How often does that happen?
At noon, I will be giving my most recent musical Continuing Legal Education ethics seminar, “Ethics Cabaret,” at Nationals Park in D.C. prior to the Mets-Nats game. “Ethics Cabaret,” like its six predecessors, presents legal ethics hypotheticals as parodies of pop, rock, Broadway or country-western standards, presented by a professional performer. In this case, the performer is American Century Theater veteran Esther Covington, who accompanies herself on the keyboard. I write the songs that make the young lawyers cry, but she sings them, beautifully and often hilariously.
Speaking of Barry Manilow, my favorite segment of the seminar is the parody of one of his signature songs, which you can hear above—it’s an ear-worm, so be careful. The legal ethics version is about “Bridge of Spies” and the many quandaries raised in the film, which I examined in this post earlier this year. The parody is called “Who is the Client?,” lyrics-only copyrighted by ProEthics. Here they are….you can sing them along with Barry’s version! Continue reading
“Wild Bill” Donovan, who should have had nothing whatever to do with my ethics seminar today, but did anyway…
Yesterday I wrote about a lawyer in a legal ethics seminar interrupting me with a revelation about Gene Autry that was completely false.
Today I taught another legal ethics seminar, this time for a government agency. I was discussing was the various government ethics dilemmas in “Bridge of Spies,” the story of how lawyer Jim Donovan helped secure the release of downed U.S. flyer Francis Gary Powers in a famous incident during the Cold War. Many of the issues covered in my presentation were explored in this Ethics Alarms post.
As the film portrays it, Donovan, an insurance lawyer, does such a tenacious job defending an accused Soviet spy from U.S. government prosecution that the CIA recruits him to broker the trade of his now-former client, convicted and in prison, for Powers. In discussing the classic government lawyer dilemma of “who is the client?,” I noted that the CIA agent who recruited Donovan told him that he would have no client. “Why did the CIA trust Donovan?” I asked socraticly. “Why did Donovan, an insurance lawyer, think he was qualified to engage in this kind of representation, it it was a representation?”
For the second time in nine days, an attendee piped up with an amazing piece of information.
“I suspect some of the answer to both questions is that James Donovan was the son of “Wild Bill” Donovan, who is considered the father of the Central Intelligence Agency,” he said. Continue reading
Quite a few readers have written that they would enjoy some of the problems I present in my seminars on legal ethics. I try to please, so here are some difficult legal ethics issues that arose in the screenplay of last year’s Oscar-nominated film “Bridge of Spies.”
I wrote about the film earlier this year, here.
The film tells the true story of Jim Donovan, an insurance lawyer who is recruited, in 1957, by his New York bar association to take on the representation of the accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, a job that we see Donovan not only do bravely and competently, but one that he takes all the way to the Supreme Court. He loses, and Abel goes to prison.
Legal ethics points:
- That ends the representation, and Abel is no longer Donovan’s client, but a former client.
- Lawyers still have duties to former clients: they must keep all of the confidences learned during the representation and after, and not use these against the interests of the ex-client, or reveal them ever, even after the ex-client is dead and buried, except under rare circumstances.
- A lawyer is also not allowed to become adverse to the interests of a former client in a substantially related matter to the one he (or she) handled for the client.
Because when representing Abel, Donovan had argued against executing the spy on the grounds that he might a useful bargaining chip if an American was captured by the Russians—an argument he made to save Abel’s life, not to provide unsolicited advice to the government—the capture of U2 pilot Gary Powers after he was shot down in a spy plane makes the lawyer a candidate to make his own scenario come true. An East German official sends Donovan a letter claiming to be able to broker an exchange of Powers for Abel. When the CIA learns about the letter, they ask Donovan to go to East German and negotiate the deal. Continue reading
The shooting script for the Academy Award nominated film “Bridge of Spies” is now online. Written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, it, like the film that Steven Spielberg made out of it, provides an unusually accurate and nuanced portrayal of ethical lawyering. The movie is worth seeing, better more than once, and I expect that I will use many issues raised in it for class discussion as I teach legal ethics to lawyers this year.
There is one howlingly wrong scene, in which the lawyer, Jim Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) has a private discussion with the judge who will be sentencing his client, a convicted Russian spy. Donovan argues against a death sentence. If this happened, and I doubt it, it would have been an egregious ethics breach: this is called ex parte contact, and is strictly forbidden.
The film redeems this misstep many times over, especially in a scene that neatly explores both the duty of confidentiality and the duty of loyalty, as well as the crucial role of rules in society, and why “the ends justify the means” as well as those who advocate that philosophy must be rejected. “Ethics Bob” Stone told me that he now uses the scene in his business ethics classes.
The scene begins with Donovan meeting in a restaurant with a man who has been following him…. Continue reading
As regular readers here know, I am not an admirer of the character of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, though he had some notable leadership skills that I respect. His reputation as a great man and President is vastly inflated and, in a strange way, I may share some of the responsibility for that.
Several years ago, I had just completed an ethics seminar for the DC Bar. One of the issues I discussed was the lawyer’s ethical duty to protect attorney-client confidences in perpetuity, even after the death of the client. An elderly gentleman approached me, and said he had an important question to ask. He was retired, he said, and teased that I would want to hear his story. I don’t generally give out ethics advice on the fly like this, but I was intrigued.
“My late law partner, long before he began working with me, was Joseph P. Kennedy’s “‘fixer,'” he began, hooking me immediately. “Whenever Jack, Bobby or Teddy got in trouble, legal or otherwise, Joe would pay my partner to ‘take care of it,’ whatever that might entail. Well, my partner died last week, and when I saw him for the last time, he gave me the number of a storage facility, the contract, and the combination to the lock. He said that I should take possession of what was in there, and that I would know what to do. Continue reading
Lawyers are forbidden by the ethics rules of their profession in every state from divulging the secrets of their clients, their former clients, or even their dead former clients, except in the rare circumstances when doing so will save a life or prevent a crime, and often not even then. Client confidences include all information a lawyer learns about a client in the course of the representation whether or not it is germane to the representation or not, if the client would be embarrassed by the information or would want it to remain secret.
The duty to maintain client confidences goes to the core of the professional relationship between citizens and their lawyers, and any attorney who breaches it not only harms his or her client but undermines trust in the entire profession as well. So sacrosanct is the duty that a Massachusetts court agreed with the Fall River law firm that represented Lizzy Borden in her famous murder trial, when Lizzy’s heirs tried to force it to reveal whether she did, in fact, “give her mother forty whacks” (and her father forty-one) with an ax, that it could not reveal Borden’s secrets even in the interests of history. The firm, said the court, was quite correct: Miss Borden hired it based on its lawyers’ assurances that her secrets were safe with the firm forever, and to allow otherwise now, even a century after the crime, would betray her trust and undermine the profession’s integrity. The Massachusetts Bar agrees.
So how can it be that Henry Bushkin, for decades the late Johnny Carson’s personal lawyer and thus charged with keeping the secrets of the famously reticent comic’s personal life, is now publishing a tell-all book filled with juicy stories about his conveniently dead client? Continue reading
“Objection! The defendant’s pants are clearly on fire!”
I’m in Ohio today, talking about legal ethics with a large law firm, and the discussion there turned to the difficult problem of the lying criminal client. Here is a post on the topic from the early days of Ethics Alarms, slightly updated, and the disturbing thing is that we are no closer to finding a satisfactory and ethical solution to the problem.
What do you do when your guilty client wants to claim he’s innocent in the witness chair, under oath? Continue reading