Every day, it seems, there is a news story that contains facts that seem to go out of their way to make people less and less confident in the system and rule of law. This is personally frustrating to me, because as a lawyer and a judge, I believe in the possibilities of the system. When it works properly, it works beautifully. Everyone is entitled to their day in court, everyone is entitled to a defense, and everyone is subject to the same rules.
Only it doesn’t always work beautifully. Lawyers have been the subject of jokes since before Shakespeare’s day [“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Henry the Sixth, Part 2, Act 4, Scene 2.] There is a general perception that life would be better without lawyers. Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” is notable because of his noble exception. But where would you be without lawyers? Who do you call when someone gets in trouble, or when your wife leaves you, or when someone dies? You call a lawyer. Because, believe it or not, lawyers participate in a helping profession. We help people through their worst times.
Unfortunately, as a collective group we aren’t very good at P.R. It is only recently that the concept of lawyers advertising was even permissible. As a result of the lack of history, lawyer advertising tends to be either painfully boring or painfully obnoxious. Neither one is good for our image. We’re either stodgy or showy.
Of course, as my Dad says, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, so long as they spell your name correctly. Trials have a tendency to make the news, and lawyers are often the spokespeople for people accused of criminal wrongdoing. What we do, or at least the sound bytes and snippets the news outlets pick up, paints our image for us. People have trouble separating us from our clients. If we represent a guilty person, we must be guilty.
So I pay attention when lawyers themselves are the news, which isn’t that often, thankfully. I learned recently through the American Bar Association that a lawyer, Benjamin Yu, and his paralegal, Jose Nunez, were convicted of bribery for paying a New York Criminal Justice Agency worker to tell people who had been incarcerated that they would be released sooner or get a better result if they hired Yu.
I don’t have to presume that Yu and Nunez are innocent because they’ve already been proven guilty. They pled not guilty at arraignment, went to trial and were convicted. They haven’t been sentenced yet, but I hope (for personal reasons) that the sentencing is harsh. Anyone who works within the system who goes out of their way to sabotage people’s trust in the system deserve whatever comes to them.
It seemed to me that their defense at trial was entirely technical – based on the bribe-taker’s job and whether or not it qualified as a private or public sector position. I’m sure juries in New York don’t like letting people off on technicalities.
I don’t think juries in any state like letting people off on technicalities. That seems like a parlor trick to people who don’t work in the courts – that with smoke and mirrors and some obscure missing comma somewhere you can make a bad guy go free. Technical arguments work with judges (should Yu or Nunez have waived their rights to a jury trial?) and appellate courts because they understand that adhering to a strict set of rules even when the rules aren’t necessarily what you want them to be makes the system fairer for everyone. Lay people – people who are on juries – want to do the right thing.
And so, believe it or not, do most lawyers. Even when we are paid to represent people whose stories we don’t quite buy, most of us are just trying to help. And by making sure that everyone has access to a fair and zealous defense, and by making sure that everyone plays by the same set of rules, that’s exactly what we’re doing.