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. Continue reading

Morning Ethics Warm-Up,2/25/2020: Remembering “Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee” [CORRECTED]

Notice of a correction: in the first version of this post, I mistakenly wrote that the famous photo above was  of the first Liston fight. It was not: this was the dramatic scene that ended the rematch. Thanks to Tim Levier for reminding me.

Good Morning!

1. Cultural literacy thoughts: I wonder…how many Millennial Americans—or among the post-boomer generations—recognize the context of the photo above? On this date in 1964, a brash 22-year-old black boxer named Cassius Clay (1942-2016) pulled off one of the great upsets in sports history, defeating world heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston, an 8-to-1 favorite, in a seventh-round technical knockout. The now iconic photo above captured the dramatic finale of the 1965 rematch, ending the speculation that Clay’s victory over the previously frightening Liston had been a fluke.

Indeed, the 1964 fight was just the beginning of a remarkable story.

After his stunning victory, the sudden celebrity attended a victory to a private party at a Miami hotel. In attendance was Malcolm X, the outspoken leader of the rising African American Muslim group known as the Nation of Islam. Two days later, Cassius Clay announced he was joining the Nation of Islam, and renounced his “slave name”  to adopt  the Muslim name, Muhammad Ali. As Ali, he became one of the most influential social and political figures of his era, affecting civil rights, politics, public attitudes, language and culture…and sports, of course, as  professional boxing’s greatest champion. After successfully defending his title nine times, Ali surrendered it in 1967 after he refused induction into the U.S. Army on the grounds that he was a Muslim minister and thus  a conscientious objector. His stand against the Vietnam War galvanized national opposition to the war, especially among students and the young. In 1971,  the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s draft evasion conviction, and in 1974, he regained his heavyweight title in a match against George Foreman in Zaire, enshrining his phrase “rope-a-dope” in our lexicon. Eventually Ali became  the first boxer to win the heavyweight title three times. His post-retirement diagnosis  of pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome and the sad spectacle of the once loquacious and witty athlete’s slow decline into near speechlessness and impaired motor functionscontributed to the collapse of boxing’s popularity. Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan, and lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremonies of the1996  Summer Games in Atlanta, Georgia.

My mother, who like virtually everyone in her first generation Greek family was uncomfortable around blacks, once met Ali, who was seated next to her at a Harvard College function when she was Assistant Dean of Housing. She said later that he was the most charming, charismatic, beautiful man she had ever met in her life.

2. You can lead an idiot to child-proof packaging, but you can’t make him think. A study in the Journal of Pediatrics aimed at figuring out why there has been a steep rise in accidental poisonings of U.S. children according to CDC figures has come to a disturbing conclusion. Researchers analyzed nearly 4,500 calls to five U.S. poison centers in Arizona, Florida and Georgia over an eight month period in 2017. They found more than half of the prescription medicine poisonings occurred because parents and grandparents removed  pills and medicines from child-proof packaging to make them more easily accessible, to help the adults remember to take them, or more convenient for travel. Continue reading