Some may still recall the “not so timeless classic” 1987 movie, From the Hip, starring Jud Nelson who is more popularly known for his role in what is closer to a timeless classic, The Breakfast Club. With all the 1980’s nostalgia as of late, the former movie came to mind as one of those flicks that I have been meaning to watch after all these years. It just so happens to be one of the more odd-ball cinematic portrayals of a courtroom attorney that gave me a few seeds of inspiration in my youth. The story line essentially follows what is a comedic drama of an unconventional attorney who impresses the partners in his firm so as to make junior partner early in his career. He is eventually handed a high-profile murder-rape case, his superiors thus vetting his avant-garde abilities. And, as the story goes Nelson’s character is caught between his ethics and questionable duty owed to his client, being forced to reexamine his career. I suggest watching this one, and I do not want to spoil anything for those who have not yet had the chance to see it.
Having myself just a short bout in criminal defense work I can relate to Robin “Stormy” Weathers, played by Nelson. This is not to suggest that I have ever been in a real-life drama quite like the one in From the Hip, and my dramas have much less of any of the comedic elements. But, the moral dilemmas have nonetheless come to pass for me, as I imagine they do for many lawyers. It makes sense why there are so many movies, books, and television shows about the legal-life and the practice of law. Ethical predicaments make for great plot lines. “Art imitates life, and life imitates art,” right?
Unequivocally, and I must point out that “A man profits nothing if he is to gain the whole world only to have lost his soul.” I don’t mean to appear preachy but I cannot help think of this biblical reference in light of grand ambitions coupled with the “slings and arrows” of the legal practice and yearnings for better than “outrageous fortune.” Perhaps for me and other attorneys who set out on their own it was largely driven by the prospect of maintaining our ethics that dispelled us from working for others. Or, maybe it was not so much being dispelled as much as it was feeling morally compelled. Outside of the moral and ethical considerations my reasoning has likewise been, also more or less, either the top two tiers of the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs pyramid or a practical approach to taking on legal work that I care to do instead of what someone else is mandating I must. Is this not one of the veritable benefits of going solo? I think and know so.
The “trials and tribulations” of being an attorney, let alone the actual legal trials comparable to the one in From the Hip - being often the basis for fiction - can sting the heart and make the mind feel wretched. One of the things the profs don’t teach you in law school is how to deal with these; and maybe they ought to have a class in addition to Legal Ethics 101 that conditions as well as prepares attorneys for the dilemmas they will inevitably face. Certainly, an internship or legal practicum class, such as the civil clinic I participated in while in school, give a prospective attorney a taste of what will lie ahead. Yet it takes being out in the field to get the entire “humble pie” of what we often feel is owed to our ethics. I can’t speak for others; however, I can for myself – I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked, “Doesn’t it kill your conscience to….?”
The resounding answer is, “Yes.” I am not the only one that is still warm-blooded. There are plenty, I am confident, which would concur. As long as we attorneys are human our conscience, and our humanity, remain in tack, although at what price do they not? The foregoing biblical reference reveals the answer.
There is another famous quotation, and a short anecdote I enjoy, this time by a Harvard professor whom I regrettably cannot remember his name. In any event, a long while back he is noted for "pontificating" on the first day of the school’s legal ethics course something like this: “There is only one thing you really need to know... Be honest in all that you do.” That was it! He dismissed class until the day of the final exam. What I love about what this professor most succinctly states is the utter truth even if it is an oversimplification of the rules of professional conduct. Despite some kernel of truth anyone can easily detect that the ethical guidance is somewhat lacking in the "lesson." Ultimately, and at the expense of being a little cliché and over doing it on the quotations, I think Socrates is correct, “To thy own self be true.” If you want to be a success as a lawyer you must know the rules. When it comes to bending them I would stick with the philosopher’s guidance as it lacks little in its "lesson," that is if you want to be a success in life.