A True Story About the Behavior of Lawyers

Learn about how the legal system allows lawyers to define "ethics" as what they can get away with rather than how they should behave.3 min read

from The Moral Compass of the American Lawyer
by Richard Zitrin & Carol M. Langford
Ballantine Books, 1999

When her kids reached school age, Sabrina Jones went back to work as a nurse's aide at a health care facility run by Just Like Home Inc. She soon became concerned by what she saw. She had worked at other nursing homes where cleanliness was a priority. But at Just Like Home, when she was assigned to clean the common areas and medical examination rooms, she was given ordinary household cleansers instead of the industrial-strength products that she knew were necessary to meet strict state standards. And she sometimes saw medical instruments that appeared unsterilized lying about the exam rooms.

Sabrina was just an hourly worker and reluctant to say anything. But after she felt she had developed a good relationship with her boss, she went to him with her concerns. Three days later, she was fired, allowed back into the facility only to clean out her locker in the company of a security guard. Jones was shocked and upset. She hired a lawyer, who sued Just Like Home for wrongful discharge.

Across town, Laura Bernardi, a senior associate at a large urban law firm, has been working 70 hours a week trying to impress her partners so she can make partner herself. Just Like Home is one of Laura's biggest clients, and she is assigned to defend the company in the Jones case. Laura knows that the Jones suit could mean big trouble for her client: Just Like Home has a pattern of cutting corners on more than just cleaning products. And Laura has seen an internal memo stating that Jones was fired because of what she suspected about the company's sloppy attitude about cleanliness.

But Laura has been taught that her primary ethical duty is to represent her client zealously. And she knows that she and Just Like Home have the upper hand. Sabrina's lawyer has taken a job in another state, leaving her without counsel. Still unemployed, Sabrina has little money to prosecute the lawsuit herself, and almost no knowledge about how to do it.

Knowing that Sabrina has moved in with her sister eighty miles south of the city, Laura sets the Jones deposition at a branch of her law firm that will require Sabrina to travel by train to the city center, then by bus out of the city, and then change buses. It's a time consuming and costly trip for an unemployed mother of two. When Sabrina calls to plead with Laura to set the deposition at the firm's main city office, Laura politely but firmly refuses.

Knowing Sabrina is not likely to show up at the deposition, Laura has a certified shorthand reporter ready and waiting. When Sabrina is not there on time, Laura waits ten more minutes, notes it on the reporter's official transcribed record, and heads back to her office to sign an already-prepared motion to dismiss the case based on Sabrina's failure to appear. Overwhelmed and daunted by the legal system, Sabrina again calls Laura, pleading for more time to reply to the motion and to find a new lawyer. Again Laura refuses. Her motion is heard and granted by the court, and Sabrina has lost her case almost before it's begun.

The story of Sabrina Jones and Laura Bernardi is true, though the names have been changed. Lawyers may have mixed feelings about what "Laura" did, but most would say she acted properly -- doing it by the book, using legal procedure to gain an advantage for her client. Few, if any, would call it unethical. Yet most non-lawyers would say that something wrong has taken place -- that justice has been not served, but denied.

Excerpted from pages 1-2 of The Moral Compass of the American Lawyer: Truth, Justice, Power, and Greed, © 1999, Richard Zitrin rzitrin@usfca.edu & Carol M. Langford langford@usfca.edu. All rights reserved.

This critically acclaimed book, about how the legal system allows lawyers to define "ethics" as what they can get away with rather than how they should behave, is written by two noted legal ethics professors who write frequently about ethics and morality in the legal profession.

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