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Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The Trustworthiness of American Lawyers (Part II)

The following post comes from Michael Ariens (St. Mary's), the second in a series about his new book, The Lawyer's Conscience A History of American Lawyer Ethics (University of Kansas Press).     

Perhaps the most eventful experience in David Hoffman’s life occurred when he was nearly lynched for actions related to his opposition to the War of 1812. Hoffman and other Federalists battled supporters of the war, resulting first in the deaths of several supporters, and, after the arrest and jailing of Hoffman’s compatriots, the murder of one of those jailed. Hoffman would have been hanged “but for the providential interference of a stranger, who satisfied the murderers that they had got hold of the wrong man.”

 Five years later, Hoffman’s A Course of Legal Study was published, praised by Justice Joseph Story and others. It was intended to serve those interested in learning law; soon after its publication Hoffman began lecturing interested law students in Maryland. The 1817 edition included a list of readings concerning how lawyers should act. In 1836, the second edition of A Course of Legal Study was published. Over twice the length of the original, the second edition included an introductory essay on the standards of behavior, followed by fifty Rules in Regard to Professional Deportment. Hoffman’s essay and rules were premised on the lawyer’s duty to act honorably. Too often lawyers exercised power in search of wealth and fame. Neither demonstrated a lawyer was honorable, which was the true measure of professional success. Only when lawyers sought honor did they elevate both themselves and the legal profession. His introductory essay used “honor,” “honorable,” and “honorably” thirteen times. Hoffman’s Rules were also premised on the idea of honor, using it or its variants eleven times.

Hoffman’s second edition was poorly received, selling poorly and reviewed rarely. In 1846, Hoffman’s Hints on the Professional Deportment of Lawyers was published. Hints reprinted in one book all of Hoffman’s writings on lawyer ethics. Hints wasn’t received at all; neither the remaining existing legal publications nor literary magazines reviewed it. And it appears it sold worse than the second edition (which was also reprinted in 1846). Hoffman moved to England in 1847. He returned to the United States in 1854, the year in which he died.

Hoffman embraced aristocracy; to be called an aristocrat was a term of honor. He excoriated Jacksonian democracy as “jacobinical” mob rule. But he was an aristocrat living in a democratic age. This made his Rules both incisive and out-of-date. For example, Hoffman condemned the lawyer who purchased the client’s interest in the case, for that purchase occurred only after the lawyer knew the strength of the case. This was a conflict of interest. Hoffman contrasted such cases with a lawyer’s taking a case on a contingent fee. That was permissible, for it permitted poor clients to obtain representation when otherwise impossible. Further, an honorable lawyer provided the same diligence to every client, no matter how large or small the matter. And an honorable lawyer returned a client’s money before any need to request it. An honorable lawyer simply did not take advantage of one’s clients.

But Hoffman’s emphasis on honor also led him to promote ethics rules lawyers had already discarded. Hoffman urged lawyers not to plead either the statute of limitations or the defense of infancy against an honest demand. Hoffman was well aware that both defenses were permitted by law in Maryland. But he reserved to the lawyer the position as “sole judge … of the occasions proper for their use.” To aid a “guilty” client to evade responsibility by use of such defenses was to diminish the honor of lawyers. Lawyers ignored Hoffman’s pleas to maintain their honor, as other writers urged a slightly different path.

One of those writers was Timothy Walker. In an 1839 speech to law graduates, Walker emphasized conscience rather than honor. Though Walker, like Hoffman, urged lawyers to avoid dishonorable means when practicing law, Walker interpreted honor to mean a lawyer should practice law with integrity and dignity. Walker’s intention was to permit lawyers to represent a client with a “bad cause,” which Hoffman rejected. If the lawyer could keep his conscience in representing the bad cause, the lawyer was acting consonant with moral principles: “[A] lawyer is not accountable for the moral character of the cause he prosecutes, but only for the manner in which he conducts it.” Walker gave three reasons why a lawyer should take “doubtful” cases: first, prejudging a case might lead the lawyer to error; second, the lawyer did not keep the client’s conscience; and third, “Every man … has a right to have his case fairly presented before the court.”

The concept of lawyerly honor faded slowly, as internal conscience began to replace external honor as the standard for assessing lawyer behavior. By the early twentieth century, newly-created bar associations, including the American Bar Association (1878), resolved to create written rules of professional conduct. Part III suggests several reasons why American lawyers, particularly elite lawyers, considered it necessary to establish such rules.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 11, 2023 at 09:31 AM in Books, Law and Politics | Permalink

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