For an attorney, reputation is everything

Throughout my more than 50 years as a member of the bar, one lesson has stood out as more important than all the others: A good personal reputation is the greatest asset a lawyer possesses.

Recently, Judge Paul Chernoff and I were honored to be asked by the Massachusetts Bar Association to teach the segment on reputation in the mandatory one-day course on professionalism that all newly admitted lawyers are required to take. From our combined experiences, both as practicing lawyers and as judges, we demonstrated repeatedly that the key ingredient to success as both a lawyer and a judge is reputation, particularly for integrity.

The lesson is not new and, indeed, was best stated by Shakespeare more than four centuries ago. In "Othello," Iago makes the point when he says:

"Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,

Is the immediate jewel of their souls.

Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;

Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;

But he that filches from me my good name

Robs me of that which not enriches him.

And makes me poor indeed."

Shakespeare hammers the point home in "King Richard II" in the famous passage about how a leopard does not change its spots.

King Richard II:

"Rage must be withstood:

Give me his gage: lions make leopards tame."

Thomas Mowbray:

"Yea, but not change his spots: take but my shame.

And I resign my gage. My dear dear lord,

The purest treasure mortal times afford

Is spotless reputation: that away,

Men are but gilded loam or painted clay.

A jewel in a ten-times-barr'd-up chest

Is a bold spirit in a loyal breast.

Mine honour is my life; both grow in one:

Take honour from me, and my life is done:

Then, dear my liege, mine honour let me try;

In that I live and for that will I die."

Another quote that many attribute to Shakespeare, but which really belongs to Sir Walter Scott, states a truism that lawyers, among others, have great difficulty remembering:

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave ? when first we practice to deceive."

Recent admittees to the bar in particular - but also some veteran lawyers - have difficulty distinguishing between being a zealous advocate and a zealot. A lawyer who practices with professionalism can both represent his client and have a civil relationship with the opposing lawyer.

As a newly admitted trial attorney, I was more than eager to zealously represent my client and win at all costs. My father, an experienced trial lawyer, cautioned me that to unnecessarily push the other lawyer into a corner from which there was no escape was counterproductive. As my father put it, a cornered cat is very dangerous.

Shortly after hearing that admonition, I was trying a case before a jury in Middlesex County that was going in almost perfectly from my client's perspective. Rather than going for the kill, and who knows what might have happened, I asked the opposing lawyer at the noon recess what he thought would be a fair resolution. He made a reasonable offer, and I accepted.

Five years later, I represented the estate of a woman who allegedly had slipped on a banana peel in a supermarket and injured her knee. She died unrelated to the accident before the case went to trial.

When the trial started in Suffolk Superior Court, I appeared with a file but no client. The opposing lawyer asked if he could see my client's medical report, which I gave him. After reading the report, he made an offer that would have been very fair if my client were alive and had established liability.

I thanked the lawyer profusely and told him that I assumed he knew I had no client. He looked at me and smiled, saying he remembered when I had him on the ropes five years earlier. That lawyer, now retired, was soon recognized as one of the giants of the trial bar and a named partner at a well-known law firm.

I also vividly recall an experience in the late 1960s when, as an assistant district attorney, I appeared before a Superior Court judge in a case in which the defense attorney was a rather surly fellow who had recently gone out on his own after being an ADA for several years. He was pleading with the judge for a favorable disposition. The judge commented that when the lawyer was in the District Attorney's Office he had never given anyone a break, so why should the court do him any favors now?

Although I doubt any judge would express such thoughts so openly today, the message was clear. That lawyer never really developed much of a practice and struggled to earn a living.

Just as being overzealous and lacking candor can destroy a reputation, doing the right thing and protecting the integrity of the judicial process can be fortuitous and have good consequences.

I had a divorce client who came to see me and, in the first interview, told me that her husband had $17,000 in cash stashed in a safe deposit box that was in both their names and to which they both had a key. When she expressed apprehension that her husband would scoop the funds if he learned of her divorce plans, she and I went to the bank and retrieved the money. She used the funds to pay my retainer and kept the balance.

A few days later we went to court on the issue of temporary support. Opposing counsel asked my client, who was on the witness stand testifying under oath, whether she had removed funds from the safe deposit box. After she repeatedly denied knowing anything about the funds, I interceded and told the judge what had occurred.

Needless to say, I was fired as her lawyer. Although the more prudent approach, under the ethical rules in existence at the time, might have been for me to withdraw from the case rather than contradict my client, the rules in effect today make it clear that a lawyer's primary obligation is to the integrity of the court system and to make sure that the court is not deceived.

About six months later, I was before the same judge arguing a hotly contested motion. When opposing counsel yelled out that I was a liar, the judge interjected and said, "If Mr. Ginsburg says those are the facts, those are the facts."

A number of years later when a member of the state police assigned to the Governor's Office was doing due diligence on my candidacy for a judgeship, he came by my office to interview me. Upon reading my application and seeing that the aforementioned judge had strongly endorsed me, the detective told me that he and the judge had worked together in the Attorney General's Office. If that judge endorsed me, the detective said, he was satisfied and would close out his background check expeditiously.

Two other well-known quotations from Shakespeare's works highlight the importance of professionalism in the practice of law. One of the lines most frequently cited from "Henry the Sixth, Part 2" is: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

Contrary to popular belief, Shakespeare was promoting, rather than demeaning, lawyers. The line was uttered by a rebel to the crown who wanted to tear down order and promote worship of the rebel chief. He knew that those trained in the law would not abide by that.

Over the centuries, the cynical public has ignored the context of the statement and instead has chosen to see it as a blanket condemnation of lawyers and the legal profession. An absence of professionalism only serves to contribute to the public's cynicism.

The civility and high-mindedness of a good attorney is reflected in a wonderful line from "Taming of the Shrew":

"Do as adversaries do in law

Strive mightily, but eat and drink

Strenuously."

Although it is impossible to predict how someone's career at the bar will unfold, a central ingredient of a successful and satisfying career as a lawyer is a good reputation.

The legal community is relatively small. Lawyers may talk about judges, but judges also talk about lawyers. A reputation can be made and lost very quickly. And once lost, it is gone forever.

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Retired Probate & Family Court Judge Edward M. Ginsburg is a member of Lawyers Weekly's Board of Editors. He heads Senior Partners for Justice, a program that provides the indigent with lawyers. He can be contacted at SeniorLawyers@aol.com.

Published: Tue, Nov 18, 2014