Where does lawyering this bad come from?
It is a well-established fact that many of Donald Trump’s associates are lowlives and crooks. But I’ve long felt that a special kind of attention need be paid to his collection of personal lawyers, who collectively make up some of the most depraved, unethical, and generally repulsive characters to have ever claimed the title of “Attorney.”
The blueprint is provided by Roy Cohn, his first personal attorney, who was a Joseph McCarthy-staffer turned mob lawyer, disbarred in the 1980s after attempting to defraud a dying client of his fortune. (The documentary on his life is fantastic). But his two main successors, Michael Cohen (also disbarred) and Rudolph Giuliani, have been no less spectacular in their disregard for ethics and, in recent years, increasingly frivolous and insane legal strategies. There are major law firms in this mix, including Jones Day (despite recent denials) and special mention must be made of Alan Dershowitz and the Sekulow family. Adding to the bizarreness are recent additions L. Lin Wood (Satan worship) and Sidney Powell (“release the Kraken”).
Even by their own standards, the last few weeks have been extreme for Trump’s current legal team, the self-titled “elite strike force.” In an extraordinary mixture of conspiracy theory and horrendously unethical lawyering they have filed dozens of weak and frivolous suits based on spurious evidence, have publicly alleged conspiracies involving Venezuela, China, and the CIA, and even, in the case of L. Lin Wood, discussed satanic cults and pedophilia rings. For the first time I can remember, the lawyers have been crazier than the politicians. It says something when Chris Christie is the voice of reason. And, of course, they keep losing in court, often in humiliating fashion.
So just where does lawyering this bad come from? Some of these figures were always bad apples, but some were, once upon a time, respectable or fairly respectable. The simpler answer is that they were all just ethically impaired to begin with. But a deeper answer, I believe, comes from understanding the corrupting influence of the lawyering process itself, an effect wildly amplified in the case of working for Trump.
The process of lawyering has potentially powerful effects on one’s conscience and character. To be someone’s lawyer — especially a personal lawyer — is to agree to take their side in an unusually unconditional way. You begin to inhabit your client’s world, not in an impartial or balanced manner, but with the stated goal of advancing their interests.
Lawyers do need to take sides, but it is also an ethically dangerous process that usually leaves even attorneys of strong character a bit brainwashed. That’s especially true if they spend years representing one industry or one type of client. After a few strong drinks with an attorney who counts the tobacco or pharmaceutical industry as a client, you can count on hearing about how his clients are just deeply misunderstood, and at heart are decent guys like the rest of us. A professional-level ability to rationalize can be a dangerous thing. Lawyers can, moreover, also be extraordinary denialists: some piously claim to be wholly unaffected by years of being paid by an industry to voice their opinions.
But these are just the normal problems of representation, occupational hazards really. In some lawyers, however, there is a different, much more dramatic effect. Some — too eager to serve — go beyond partiality and undergo a wholesale transformation of character, becoming completely submissive to their client/master. In this process they become a zealously unhinged version of their client, distilled and fortified, like an exaggerated outgrowth of his darkest intentions. That can be bad enough in a divorce proceeding. But when such a supplicant and submissive attorney has Donald Trump as a client, the effect is almost like an explosion, leading in directions at best dangerously unethical and at worst criminal.
Donald Trump has always preferred this latter kind of lawyer — the kind whose submission to him is total and unconditional. Those who give balanced advice, point out the lack of evidence, or urge caution — as good counsel are supposed to — are fired. The effect is to select for the kind of lawyers most likely to undergo the transmutation just described, and become the kind of client-supplicant creatures that are Trump’s revealed preference. Such attorneys may play the tough guy and seem strong externally, but of course anyone who does everything his client asks is inherently weak.
Take Rudolph Giuliani. You might think him a man of strong character, based on the confident voice, the cigars, and so on. But he turns out to, apparently, have no real inner strength, none of the internal ethical limits associated with actual character. Instead, he has always been the client-supplicant par excellence. As federal prosecutor, his client was Ronald Reagan and the United States, and his brand was the relentless use of prosecutorial power. There were good sides to this — he served us, his client, by putting New York crime families in jail. But his zealous pursuit of Reagan’s war on drugs put hundreds behind bars unnecessarily, and above all, he repeatedly failed to do what prosecutors are supposed to do — namely, exercise discretion and judgment when using the great power of the federal government.
Fast-forward some 50 years, and we find Giuliani transformed, his empty core now filled with an exaggerated version of Trump’s worst impulses. Imagine the conversations: Trump wants someone to generate proof that Biden was bribed by a Ukrainian company? “I’m on it.” How about a foreign investigation of Biden? “No matter what it takes.” Evidence of election fraud? “Yes, my master. Mountains of it.”
It isn’t just Giuliani, though he is an extreme specimen. The same kind of effect seems to be warping Trump’s other attorneys as well. Sidney Powell, another former federal prosecutor, may have not always been the most mentally-balanced member of the bar. Yet, as part of the Trump legal team, she became some who would come to assert, as Axios put it, that “Gov. Brian Kemp has been bribed by a Venezuelan front company in cahoots with the CIA to throw elections to Communists.” One can’t help seeing some kind of eagerness to please behind her assertions that Trump won by millions of votes and that the proof of it lies in a conspiracy involving shadowy figures associated with Trump’s enemies and the deep state.
Then there is L. Lin Wood, who has been filing pro-Trump lawsuits in a quasi-independent manner. He, also, appears not to be the most balanced practitioner ever to grace a courtroom with his presence. In fact, a suit filed by his partners alleged that he told them he was actually “God Almighty” currently “in disguise,” and for that reason they should not expect a fair share of firm profits. He also, according to that complaint, had sexual designs on the wife of his partner; perhaps he believes that God need not follow his own commandments. All that sounds bad enough, but Wood has also been a man transformed recently, becoming a man who believes his lawsuits will help to cause “the great awakening.” The country, he said, is “going to be shocked at what I believe is going to be a revelation in terms of people who are engaged in satanic worship.”
These exaggeratedly absurd attorneys might just seem a product of this time and place, but they are actually symptoms of a deeper problem in American legal culture. The unfortunate truth is that this kind of total supplication to the client, this willingness to do anything to serve, is rewarded far more than it should be. Some of the most highly paid litigators in America are also some of the most intense, unprincipled, and borderline insane lawyers in the country. Being abrasive, crazy, and unethical should not be, but is one path to rich rewards in the practice of litigation.
No one doubts that an attorney should work hard to advance the interests of their clients. But the ideal of the wise counsel, the prudential voice, the careful lawyer has been increasingly eclipsed by another vision: the lawyer as yet another highly paid enabler. The insanity of Trump’s lawyers, in this respect, is an exaggerated mirror of what we’ve allowed legal practice to become.
A few lawyerly caveats
- Everything in this piece is intended as an assertion of the opinions of the author, and are not factual assertions. For example, the premise that the legal strategies are “insane” is not intended to literally suggest such filings or those that had made them suffer from a mental disorder.
- Some readers may sense or believe that I am implicitly discounting the possibility that there was, in fact, a large-scale conspiracy between the Democratic party (minus its Senate and House candidates), the state electoral commissions & many members of the Republican party for the explicit purpose of committing electoral fraud on a massive scale. I also tend to discount the possibility that space reptiles, partnered with the derros and Elon Musk, used orbital mind control lasers to quantum-shift fluoride to vibrate at 440hz and thereby force people to vote for Biden against their will.
- I am aware of “the lawyer’s obligation zealously to protect and pursue a client’s legitimate interests, within the bounds of the law, while maintaining a professional, courteous and civil attitude toward all persons involved in the legal system.” This duty of zealous representation, however, does not come close to excusing the conduct of Trump’s attorneys. It does not, for example, excuse lying in public, submitting false or misleading evidence, or filing frivolous lawsuits, let alone serving as an accomplice to criminality. The ethics rules also state that a lawyer is “an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”
- The highlighting of the horrendously ethically-challenged lawyering by Trump’s attorneys does not deny, imply or otherwise suggest that there are not also good and publicly lawyers in this world, committed to the honest and fair operation of the justice system, whether in the private bar, non-profit, or government sectors. You in fact, may be one of those lawyers, and feel unfairly maligned. My point is suggest what cannot be denied: that there are some inherent ethical dangers created by the process of lawyering, dangers well illustrated by the ongoing saga of the elite strike force.