Posted on: 9/2/2011
Winston N. Harless, Lewis King Krieg
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During a recent week of depositions, I had the pleasure of spending time in downtown Riverside, California. Located on Main Street in the midst of an open pedestrian area is a beautiful and inspiring memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. One section of the memorial is a bordered walkway leading down to the visually unique statue of Gandhi—which, as you circle it, provides a montage of his life and displays images of other champions of nonviolent demonstration. As you walk toward the statue, you are met with some of Ghandi's more provocative statements. Some of these statements are quite succinct and powerful. For instance: "Live simply so others may simply live. . . ," and "An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind." One of the selected statements is a bit more expansive, but through it, Ghandi identifies with distinct and efficient clarity the seven sins one may find in the world. Given that Ghandi's first efforts to champion civil rights occurred while he was an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, we lawyers should consider what might be described as seven legal "sins."
Ghandi observed, "There are seven sins in the world: Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice, and politics without principle." In what might be likened to the dramatic style of that legendary filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock—exposing danger in the most unlikely of places or situations—Ghandi exposes dangers that lurk in what otherwise should be commendable attributes or pursuits.
Admittedly, any person should benefit in day-to-day living by giving serious consideration to these observations as part of whatever profession or avocation that person pursues. Nonetheless, and with apologies to Ghandi, a practical translation or paraphrasing of these observations may disclose to lawyers at least seven legal sins to be found lurking in our world.
In the legal arena, Ghandi's "wealth without work" might best be paraphrased as "billing without work." Whether it be inflated estimations of time spent on a task; taking credit for work actually performed by a subordinate; or imaginary tasks that a client might expect the lawyer to perform, but which were never performed; billing time that does not accurately reflect actual work performed is unethical. In so doing, the lawyer not only cheats the client, but also cheats that lawyer's partners and co-workers, particularly if the lawyer's firm bases compensation on performance—i.e., originations and collections. Unfortunately, it is a problem that has long-existed and likely will persist, but ethical lawyers resist the temptation of this legal sin.
Ghandi's "pleasure without conscience" might best be paraphrased as "winning without conscience." Whether it is improperly withholding damaging information from the opposing side; purposely failing to disclose the holding of an obscure, but clearly dispositive case to a court; improperly coaching a client during a break at a deposition or at trial; or purposely presenting facts not in evidence during final argument; the win-at-all-costs mentality has certainly tainted the noble profession of law.
Similar to the twist of Ghandi's second "sin," his "knowledge without character" might best be paraphrased as "advocacy without character." In this age when so many take the position that it doesn't matter about your character so long as you perform, lawyers would be well served to remember one of the dreams of Martin Luther King, Jr.—whose image, appropriately, is featured as part of the Riverside memorial—when he expressed the hope that people would be properly judged by "the content of their character." In many ways, a lawyer is a public figure and emissary of the profession, and should act accordingly.
Ghandi's fourth sin—"commerce without morality"—needs no paraphrasing to hold true in the legal world. When the lawyer's primary question or concern about a case is, "How can I work this file to create more fees," rather than asking, "What can I do to resolve this case most efficiently and effectively for the benefit of my client," then Ghandi's observation rings true.
Although a bit of a stretch, Ghandi's fifth sin of "science without humanity" might be likened to "technical expertise without humanity." Lawyers pride themselves on their practiced skills, whether those skills be expertise in writing, witness interrogation, or oral presentation in court. These are skills to be desired and achieved. Nonetheless, what lawyer has not witnessed these same "skills" used to vent personal attacks, lack of professional respect, or demonstrations of unprofessional conduct towards a witness, an opposing party, or an opposing attorney?
Ghandi clearly exposes hypocrisy through his sin of "worship without sacrifice." In the legal realm, lawyers must not accept the personal benefits and rewards of their profession without giving service to others—the legal sin of "prestige without service." Whether we are called to pro bono work, active involvement in non-profit organizations, volunteering as workers in community-based projects, or making significant financial contributions to any such deserving causes, our profession has much it can and must give to make our respective communities and the world a better place for all.
Finally, Ghandi's "politics without principle" might be best paraphrased and viewed as an all-encompassing legal sin, which summarizes the first six sins: "practice without principle." Politicians seek ends, but how often have we witnessed the unfortunate results of the means by which those ends were achieved? Likewise, the practice of law generally involves seeking a desired end, but lawyers must always ask by what means. The practice of law without principle may achieve the desired ends for a limited time. In the long run, however, lawyers are well served to remember the words attributed to Abraham Lincoln—himself a lawyer: "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."
Winston N. Harless is a shareholder in Lewis, King, Krieg & Waldrop, P.C., who practices primarily out of the firm's Nashville, Tennessee, office. He has practiced mainly in the areas of commercial litigation, insurance coverage and defense, professional liability, and education law. He has served on the steering committee for the DRI Lawyers' Professionalism and Ethics Committee for six years, the last three as its publications chair.