Lawyers have ethics? You bet they do

By Scott Green

“Legal ethics” is not an oxymoron, and if anyone feels differently, I will file a frivolous lawsuit against you.

I learned about legal ethics to prepare for last Saturday’s Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination, a standardized test that most states require lawyers to pass. I had to study hard, because most of the questions look like this:

Lawyer, a lawyer in State, a state, represents Client, his client. While in court Lawyer distracts Judge, a judge, such that Judge turns and snags his robe on Doorknob, a doorknob, exposing Judge’s buttocks. Client subsequently laughs so hard he dies of an aneurysm. Is Lawyer subject to sanctions?

A. Yes, if Client filled out Form 47F (Buttocks-Related Aneurysm Waiver).

B. Yes, but not if everyone stays cool and just keeps their mouths shut.

C. No, unless it is the Feast of St. Stephen.

D. No, because the Buttocks-Related Aneurysm Waiver is actually Form 47G.

So the test requires some pretty specific, arcane knowledge. The smart test-taker calls upon his vast reserves of intelligence, poring over the answers until he realizes he never studied this area of legal ethics. Then, having not selected “D” in a while, he just goes with that.

See, lawyers are not like regular people, no matter how much time we spend paring down our fangs or unforking our tongues. Someone has to tell us what is and is not ethically permissible, because many of us have no clue.

Consider Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who allegedly extorted a children’s hospital and served his guests baby seals. Before that he was a lawyer, and at some point even took and passed the MPRE. So legal ethics can only take you so far.

That’s why the American Bar Association wrote its Model Rules of Professional Conduct, the code on which the MPRE is based. A lawyer should NOT steal his client’s money, the Model Rules make clear, even if he’s depressed because the local children’s hospital refuses to be extorted.

The rules also deal with:

Conflicts of interest: Lawyers can’t represent two opposing parties in a case. It would be the legal equivalent of an orgy, what with both clients feeling they weren’t getting enough attention and everybody getting screwed.

Sex: Lawyers can’t sleep with the judge hearing their case unless opposing counsel joins in or they are characters on a primetime legal drama.

Illegal gambling: Generally not against the rules. If a crime doesn’t reflect on an attorney’s ability to practice law, it’s probably okay. Though lawyers are not allowed to bet against themselves in court.

Law students making fun of legal ethics in newspaper columns: Gray area.

It’s a lot to deal with, which is why I got a study guide to help me prepare. It had a 38-page condensed summary of the rules and a DVD wherein the 38 pages were read verbatim by a guy who looked exactly like Tom Hagen, the mob lawyer from “The Godfather.” This was a good casting decision because Hagen had excellent legal ethics. He got the horse to sign a waiver before putting its severed head in that guy’s sheets.

The hassle of studying really got to me, but at least the test is over. I wonder how I did. The guy I paid to take it for me said it went really well.

Scott is a third-year law student, at least until this column is published.