Life Imitates Saul

Lawyer Billboard

 The billboard ad of North Carolina lawyer Larry Archie has drawn a lot of attention in the state and on legal ethics forums.

Some observations:

1. I was a little late seeing “Breaking Bad” ( I tend to avoid show with drug dealers as heroes) so I didn’t see the obvious connection between the popular AMC show’s cynical, unethical and effective slime-ball lawyer Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk, and last year’s jaw-dropping—but funny!—video ad for the services of Pittsburgh criminal lawyer Daniel Muessig.

2. This is why we ignore popular culture at our peril….and I think the legal profession needs to stop laughing and start worrying. People really do think Saul who is a criminal lawyer, is typical, and bar associations are doing very little to dissuade them. This is irresponsible, dangerous, and stupid. The profession has a duty to educate the public about how lawyers are supposed to act and why, and if it whiffs on that obligation (as it has for about the last hundred years) public respect for the justice system will continue to drop. Continue reading

Lawyer Daniel Muessig’s Clever, Effective, Legally Ethical And Thoroughly Despicable Ad

Just as I’ve been desperately trying to explain that lawyers do not represent bad people because they like them or want to loose them upon the world,  here comes innovative Pittsburgh lawyer Daniel Muessig, whose clever TV ad proclaims that this is exactly what he wants to do. Here it is:

Is this an ethical ad? According to the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct, it is within the conduct permitted by the state’s legal ethics rules. The ad isn’t misleading. It doesn’t make promises the lawyer cannot keep. It doesn’t represent dramatic recreations as fact, or use broad metaphors and exaggerations. (Lawyer ads are held to a standard of literalness that presumes the public has never see any other kinds of advertising in their entire lives.) Once upon a time the various state bar advertising regulations included prohibitions on “undignified” communications, or those that undermined public trust in the profession, but those days are long past: the standards were necessarily vague, and breached free speech principles.

So we have this: a lawyer who appeals to his future criminal clients by saying that he thinks like a criminal, believes laws are arbitrary, that other lawyers will “blow them off” and that he visits jails frequently because that’s where his friends are. He attacks his own colleagues and profession, denigrates the rule of law he is sworn to uphold, and seeks the trust of criminals not because of his duty as a professional, but because he’s just like them. Muessig is willing to undermine the law-abiding public’s belief in the justice system and the reputation of his profession and his colleagues in order to acquire clients. I’m sure his strategy will work, too. Continue reading

Ethics Hero: Ken, Popehat Blogger

"You'll find what you're looking for over at Popehat!"

In the spirit of “Miracle on 34th Street,” in which a Macy’s Santa famously sends a shopper to its rival department store Gimbels (R.I.P.), I’d like to direct readers to run, not walk, over to Popehat, the witty and cantankerous blog that often covers similar territory as Ethics Alarms. There Ken, a practicing lawyer, has penned as strong an essay on ethical issues as you are likely to encounter. Writing about an unethical marketer’s outrageous tactics that included posing as a lawyer to intimidate bloggers, Ken powerfully expounds on the use of bogus lawsuit threats to stifle free speech and opinion on the web, and how to fight it.

This has been a continuing theme of his for a long time, to the point of qualifying as a crusade. It is a worthy crusade, and Ken, along with Popehat, is performing a public service with posts such as this one, colorfully entitled, in the Popehat fashion, “Junk Science And Marketeers and Legal Threats, Oh My!”

Good work, Ken.

The Deceitful, Illogical, Unethical Disclaimer

Don't be fooled by Voldemort's disclaimer!

I once worked for a company that was specifically targeted by an industry group for coordinated attacks and anti-competitive tactics. We obtained a copy of the agenda for the planning meeting for this onslaught, and the bullet points looked like part of a hypothetical in an anti-trust class law school exam. This was the most blatant collusion in restraint of trade imaginable. But the  lawyers for the group apparently thought all could be made benign and legal by a disclaimer on every agenda copy that  said, in effect, “Don’t pay any attention to what this agenda says—trust us, it’s all fair and legal.” The disclaimer stated that the organization fully supported and followed all provisions of U.S. anti-trust statutes, and would never, ever do anything to violate them. This is roughly the equivalent of a mugger telling his victim that he is non-violent while he’s punching him in the face.

I am reminded of that agenda when I see commercials for new drugs, which show healthy, happy, beautiful models frolicking with their families or lovers in idyllic settings while the announcer, usually at breakneck speed, warns that the drug may cause violent flatulence, boils, locusts, insanity, cannibalism and excruciating death. I was reminded of the agenda again when I learned of the latest gambit by PublishAmerica, which earlier this year got in trouble with “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling by soliciting money from authors by promising to bring their works to her attention: Continue reading

Horrifying Mothers To Sell Videogames

What mom wouldn't like THIS?

This month’s Games Magazine’s column “Inside the Box” has some exemplary ethics commentary from video game reviewer Thomas McDonald, who took “Dead Space 2” makers Electronic Arts to task for its advertising campaign for the horror game, to which he had given a rave review.

The campaign’s theme is “Your mom hates this game,” and the company set out to prove it. “A mom’s disapproval has always been an accurate barometer of what is cool,” the company explains on its website, as it offered a viewing of the gruesome game to 200 members of an all-mother focus group recruited from “the heart of conservative America,” seeking horrified reactions, and almost unanimously getting them. Continue reading

Ethics Quiz: The Candies’ Foundation and Bristol Palin

" Hi! I'm Kim Kardashian, here to tell you that making a sex tape is a terrible mistake, even though my own sex tape made me and my two equally shallow sisters rich celebrities. Don't make the same mistake I did. Really. Trust me."

The Candie’s Foundation is a non-profit organization that, according to its website,

“…works to shape the way youth in America think about teen pregnancy and parenthood. We are an operating foundation rather than a grant-making foundation. The foundation develops and runs communication campaigns to raise awareness about, and motivate teens to prevent, teen pregnancy.”

The main source of its message to teens right now is that “Dancing With The Stars” icon, Bristol Palin. Palin, now 20, qualified herself for the assignment of speaking to teens about the importance of avoiding getting pregnant by getting pregnant when she was 16, and doing it center stage, while her mother was the Governor of Alaska. Thus using her position in Alaska’s first family to add prestige to the role of unwed teenage mother in that state, Bristol went on to national prominence as Sarah Palin campaigned for Vice President on the GOP ticket, with Bristol demonstrating during and after that jaunt that marrying the father of your child might not be such a good idea either, since he might be, as in the case of Bristol’s short-term fiancee, Levi Johnston, an immature, selfish, publicity-seeking dimwit.

Having done maximum damage to everyone but herself by becoming pregnant (with significant help from Levi, naturally), unwed mother Bristol Palin parlayed her own irresponsible behavior into the job of spokeswoman for The Candie’s Foundation. Well, her mother, I think it is fair to say, did the parlaying. It never hurts to help a prominent and rising cult political figure’s wayward offspring. Who knows when you might need a favor…or have an unemployable offspring of your own?

Bristol goes around the country talking with students and other teenagers, reminding them that they are too young to have kids, and that they should wait because it will screw up their lives. Of course, all of these teenagers know that the unwed, former teen mother telling them this has absolutely no credibility, and in fact represents the much more optimistic ( and completely unrealistic for anyone whose family isn’t rich and/or famous) position  that you can have a baby in your teens, get on lots of magazine covers, have your mother get you a job traveling around the country talking about it while someone else takes care of the baby, and become a celebrity in the bargain. Neat-o! Continue reading

Now THIS is a Euphemism…

"Hey, where'd you get that lovely paperweight?"

While we’re on the topic of euphemisms, I want to show you one of the most intriguing.

The purpose of euphemisms, as in the case of the two in the recent Ethics Alarms Quiz, is often to avoid legal consequences. The Bush Administration didn’t want to brazenly violate the treaties it has signed banning torture, so it came up with a description of torture that made it seem like something else. President Obama doesn’t want to be accused (though he is anyway) of joining a war without Senate consent, so his Administration is calling the Libyan adventure a “kinetic military action.”

But they are both amateurs compared to the on-line marketers of brass knuckles, those  deadly metal devices one puts over one’s fingers to give an adversary the beating of his soon to be shortened life. Brass knuckles are illegal in many countries, and in most states here; their sale is also prohibited in various ways, and as weapons, they are subject to other regulations. The companies that sell them on-line, however, get around all this by calling them…

Paperweights! Continue reading

Unethical Quote of the Week: Detroit News Business Editor Sue Carney

"The new model is so ugly that...What's that? They give us HOW much ad money? Uh..hey, what a GREAT looking car!

“We made several changes to the online version of Scott’s review because we were uncomfortable with some of the language in the original. It should have been addressed during the editing process but wasn’t. … the changes did not fundamentally change the thrust of Scott’s piece … a car dealer raised a complaint and we took a look at the review, as we would do whenever a reader raises a flag. The changes were made to address the journalism of the piece, not the angst of a car dealer.”


Sue Carney, business editor of The Detroit News, lying her head off to rationalize a disgraceful instance of a newspaper changing its content—a car review— to serve the interest of an advertiser.

How often does an ethical news publication publish an article then go back after it has run and change the text, over the objection of the reporter who wrote it, not correcting an error but softening an opinion? Answer: never, by definition. Continue reading

Most Unethical Bobblehead EVER

The vile bobblehead

In Game two of the 1991 World Series between the Minnesota Twins and the Altanta Braves, Brave outfielder Ron Gant singled and rounded the bag, drawing a throw to first base. He appeared to beat the throw to the bag, but the Twins’ jumbo first baseman, Kent Hrbek,  wrapped his arm around Gant’s leg and lifted him off the base as he applied the tag. First base umpire Drew Coble managed to completely miss Hrbek’s illegal tactic, and called Gant out to end the inning. The Twins went on to win that game by one run, and in one of the closest Series of all time, also won the World Championship, 4 games to 3.

Hrbek’s muscling of Gant off of first base has been widely regarded as one of the most egregious examples of cheating by a player in baseball’s 130 year history. So, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Minnesota World Series triumph, the Twins will hold a special “1991 World Series Champs Reunion Weekend” promotion featuring members of the 1991 team at the August 5 game, and the first 10,000 fans through the gates will receive a free Kent Hrbek/Ron Gant bobblehead, depicting the infamous play. Continue reading

Here We Go Again! The Groupon Super Bowl Commercial: No, Not Unethical

Every year one Super Bowl ad sets off an “It’s offensive!” “No! It’s funny!” debate, and this time around it was the commercial for Groupon, the new service that provides short-term discounts  for an eclectic variety of products. As we saw a stunning snow-covered mountain, actor Tim Hutton’s voice intoned…

“Mountainous Tibet — one of the most beautiful places in the world. This is Timothy Hutton. The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture is in jeopardy…. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry!!! And since 200 of us bought at we’re getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan Restaurant in Chicago.”

Twitter, the early warning system of our culture, immediately filled with indignant tweets, pronouncing the ad offensive. Continue reading