Ethics Counsel on www.OKbar.org

Instilling Professionalism from the Start

By Gina Hendryx, OBA Ethics Counsel

Over the past few years, “professionalism” has been a topic of much discussion and debate among attorneys. Many have attempted to define and diffuse the causes for the steady decline in the esteem in which lawyers are held by the public. Common perceptions of legal ethics are equally contemptuous. Legal ethics are regarded by many in the public as a semantical justification for a tactic, ploy or other action to achieve an end. The OBA Professionalism Committee has spent this past year exploring ways to diffuse these perceptions and to increase the awareness of professionalism issues among our colleagues.

One goal was to partner with legal education providers to review professionalism instruction in Oklahoma law schools. The committee strongly supports the introduction and instillment of professionalism ideals at the law school level. An example of such an entry-level indoctrination is the professionalism course that the University of Tulsa College of Law added to its spring 2005 curriculum.

The course, titled, “Lawyers Helping Students; Students Teaching Lawyers: Bridging The Gap Through Popular Media to Improve Professionalism in the American Legal System,” consists of a competition between teams of approximately five students each. The teams develop an oral presentation and written submission reviewing a film and book based upon historical legal cases. The students’ submissions include an analysis of the materials they reviewed from the viewpoint of improving the court system, access to justice issues and a public perception of the judicial system as a whole. Students are encouraged to develop a career-long commitment to serving the disadvantaged and are required to perform community service during the semester.

This professionalism course, developed and taught by Professionalism Committee Chairperson and TU Professor Sharisse O’Carroll, was selected as the winner of the 2006 National Award for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching Professionalism. The national award is cosponsored by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Professionalism and the National Conferences of Chief Justices and is supported by the Burge Endowment for Law & Ethics. The winning program was selected from written submissions by legal educators nationwide. The national competition was initiated in 2003 to increase incentives to law teachers and law schools to give a higher priority to the teaching of professional values, to reward and support those teachers and schools who have done innovative and effective work in this area, to create a national clearinghouse and data bank for methods to teach and assess professionalism, and to increase collaboration among the many organizations in the bench, bar and legal academy working to promote professionalism.

The winning submission from the inaugural class examined the ethical dilemmas presented in the book Buffalo Creek Disaster: The Story of the Survivors written by lead attorney Gerald M. Stern and the documentary film Murder on a Sunday Morning. Buffalo Creek Disaster chronicles the 1972 flood in West Virginia that killed 125 persons and left thousands injured and homeless. It is the quintessential David and Goliath story wherein a burned-out attorney rises to the challenge of representing the poor, downtrodden coal miners against the large corporate mining companies. TU law student E. Justin Rouse wrote the following about the impact this story had on him:

“Looking back at the story of Buffalo Creek has shown me that since my first reading assignment, my professional goals have been slowly changing. After reading this novel, along with countless other factors occurring during law school, I want to represent people.

“In today’s society, some powerful people are willing to sacrifice ethical standards in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Because of these considerations, I wish to become the best lawyer I can to protect and aid individuals who have been injured.”

The story caused TU law student Derek Wentz to weigh the dilemmas faced by all attorneys on a daily basis. The attorney must balance responsibilities to the clients, to the legal system and the lawyer’s own interest in remaining ethical while earning a satisfactory living. “As I read The Buffalo Creek Disaster, I questioned how I might have responded under the same circumstances, defending a client who was the cause of so much destruction. As a newly hired associate, weighed down with six-figure debt from three years of law school and anxious to please hiring partners, would I be able to remain an ethical person while earning a satisfactory living and while zealously representing my client the defendant mining company? I am not asserting that the ethical standards for the legal professional are too high; rather, as I read the book, I merely felt the strain placed on those licensed to practice law...”

TU law student David Hatcher compared and contrasted the book to the documentary film Murder on a Sunday Morning. The film details the arrest, coerced confession and subsequent acquittal of a young African American male charged with murder in 2000. “The biggest lesson (the book and film) taught me was the importance of doing things for the right reason. What we need to realize is that whatever we allow ourselves to focus on is what we will see. If we are motivated by money or some other selfish reason, then when a client walks in our door we are in danger of not seeing them for who they are and we are in danger of not being who they need us to be.... their advocate. “

The TU professionalism course was offered again in the summer of 2006. Five students excelled with their oral presentation and written submission. Luis Fores, Chris George, Michael Gray, Shane Henry and Chrissi Nimmo examined two cases where DNA evidence has exonerated wrongly convicted persons and a civil case that was prosecuted by the plaintiffs’ attorney for the wrong reasons. Bloodsworth is a true story about Kirk Bloodsworth who was convicted and sentenced to death for the crimes of rape and murder. Bloodsworth received a new trial, but again was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences. Nine years later, Bloodsworth was cleared by DNA evidence. In Oklahoma, another man faced a similar fate. Tim Durham was convicted of rape in 1991 and sentenced to 3,220 years in prison. He served six years before being released due to DNA evidence that conclusively proved it was impossible for him to have committed the crime.

The law students, upon reflection of these cases, wrote: “The true stories of Kirk Bloodsworth and Tim Durham require us to re-examine our definition of what it really means to be a lawyer. As a law student, we think being a successful lawyer means prestige, money, power and glory. While these things may actually be a part of a lawyer’s life, there is a much greater weight that an attorney shoulders. The lives and futures of real people rest in the hands of lawyers.”

These students also reviewed the movie A Civil Action. “Jan Schlichtmann was an ambitious personal injury attorney who had the world at his fingertips. His career was one motivated by the accumulation of wealth and recognition until he was confronted by eight families demanding justice for their children who had died from leukemia. The families believed the deaths were caused by contaminated drinking water in their hometown of Woburn, Mass. Schlichtmann began an aggressive campaign to bring down one of America’s corporate giants, risking it all for the possibility of a big payday. The case settled for far less than the attorney wanted, he ended up on bankruptcy and all of the materialism that consumed his life no longer existed after this case. The case changed his life because he learned how to care about his client, so he sent his files to the EPA in hopes in would help the Woburn families. Most people think that the motivation for an attorney is money and Schlichtmann adds to that misperception in the movie. The movie does not show Schlichtmann breaking this mold, but it is an excellent teaching tool for both aspiring and practicing attorneys. If our only motivation is money, we may begin to forget that there are people is this country who look to our profession to keep the scales of justice balanced for everyone.”

These students have gone beyond the textbooks to study real-life dramas played out in our court systems every day. Through popular media, they have encountered the injustices and greed that plague our system. Both teams presented their programs at the OBA Annual Meeting last month. If it is true that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, these students’ grasp and understanding of these professionalism issues should bode them well for the future.

Have an ethics question? It’s a member benefit, and all inquiries are confidential. Contact Ms. Hendryx at ginah@okbar.org or (405) 416-7083; (800) 522-8065.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- Dec.9, 2006 -- Vol. 77; No.34