December 15, 2011

Lawyers, Lies, & Laments

The reader(s) of the old blog will recall that I’m quite fond of Shattered Glass. The 2003 film charts the fall of writer Stephen Glass. Working primarily for The New Republic, Glass fabricated a load of allegedly nonfiction articles. When his lies were brought to light, his world crashed hard around him. Made for great drama, of course.

If you’ve seen the film, then you know that while things were falling apart, Glass was actually taking classes at Georgetown’s law school. What the film doesn’t show is that Glass went on to get his degree from Georgetown (with honors) and is now trying to become an attorney. In 2002, his application to the New York state bar was rejected due to his history of making shit up wholesale (he even wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about it, The Fabulist). Shot down there, he moved his efforts to California.

Since 2007, Glass has been battling with the legal powers that be in California, trying to join the bar.* A committee denied Glass’s application in 2009, concluding that he hadn’t really changed since things went to shit at The New Republic. However, he appealed to an administrative judge, who came to the opposite conclusion. A 3-member appellate panel affirmed that decision (2-1). Now the California bar has appealed the case to the state’s supreme court.

Since things have reached that point, all the documents involved are now public record. That’s allowed Jack Shafer at Reuters to dig deeply into the case (via). There’s a lot there, from Glass’s overbearing parents to his continued problems dealing with the full scope of his fabrications. Whether he’s really reformed or not (Shafer votes “not”), you’ll have to see for yourself.

More to the point, is the whole exercise a bit silly given the generally shitty reputation lawyers have with the public in the first place? I mean, when the general opinion of people is that the whole profession is full of bullshit artists, what’s wrong with bringing one more into the fold? If nothing else, Glass knows how to tell a hell of a story, which is a key part of being a good advocate. And haven’t there been cases where lawyers commit serious crimes but return to their legal practice years later?

At the risk of sounding like a member of the tribe justifying the protection of his own, I think it might make a difference when your character flaws become apparent. This is assuming, of course, that one’s character should be relevant at all when it comes to getting a license from the state to practice a profession. But I think it makes a difference whether you can evaluate a person’s character flaw in the context of the work he or she has done as a lawyer or not.

Assume you have two people, both with a compulsive gambling problem. One, call her Betty, is an attorney with about a decade’s worth of experience. The other, call him Bob, is of a similar age but has just passed the bar exam. Each of them has a spectacular flameout caused by their gambling problem, which resulted in criminal and civil proceedings against them. Betty notched a felony conviction, had her license to practice law suspended, and is now seeking reinstatement. Bob was hounded into bankruptcy by debts caused by his gambling and now wants to be admitted to the practice of law.

A bar committee looking at those two cases has an important bit of extra information in Betty’s case. They have her record as an attorney and can determine, however severe her gambling problem was, did it impact her practice? Did she, for example, dip into client funds to fuel her habit? Did late night gambling binges at the local casino leave her strung out and unprepared for court appearances the next day? After all, the main question in these proceedings is the fitness of the applicant to practice law.

Bob, by contrast, has no track record in the profession. There is no way to tell how those same questions might be answered in his case. Thus the committee runs the risk of bringing someone into the profession who might screw over clients because he’s not sufficiently reformed or rehabilitated. Unlike Betty, who comes with a track record, Bob only comes with his big character issue.

What this means for Glass, I think, is that he faces an uphill battle to break into the profession. Had he been a lawyer when everything went down at The New Republic, he might have a better chance of getting back in. Does that make sense? I think it does, or at least I think it can. Whether the differential analysis I laid out above goes on in real life, I have no idea. But it’s at least a justifiable rationale for an apparent double standard.

* I assume that he has actually passed the bar exam itself. In West Virginia, at least, you only get the character questions after you cross that bridge.

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