Vail Daily column: A pocketful of lawyer’s duties
May 1, 2012
I was hosting my radio show last week. The topic was sexual assault and crimes of domestic violence. I asked one of the guests for a definition of what constituted a crime of domestic violence. The answer I received, in part, went like this, “It is the attempt by a person in an intimate relationship with another to coerce, control and/or intimidate the other person.”
I responded, jokingly, “Well, didn’t you just describe the job of a lawyer?”
My other guest, also a lawyer, shared a laugh with me.
But then I got to thinking; is that really what being a lawyer is all about? Did we just, collectively, fall down the rabbit hole of stereotypes which Hollywood has painted for us over generations?
In a word, the answer is a simple, “yes.” I could write a column – and will perhaps one day – on the wrongheaded and inaccurate portrayals Hollywood has fashioned of the law.
There are bullies, sharks, shysters, “strong arms,” ambulance-chasers, and badgerers to be sure. One Colorado attorney has gone so far as to append “Bulldog” as his middle name. Geesh! But – hang with me now – in my 28 years of practicing the law, that is the exception. Deep breath now; most attorneys are, in fact, depending on their gender, quite gentlemanly or gentlewomanly. It is, in a word, generally a “polite” profession. Really. Maybe it’s because it is a profession steeped in formality and tradition, but in any event, most attorneys with whom I deal are civil if not downright pleasant.
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If you’ve ever stepped into a courtroom, you’ve likely witnessed the somewhat formalized decorum. Judges are typically addressed as “Your Honor.” The courtroom rises to greet the judge out of respect for both the person and the office. Judges still wear robes, generally of an austere and somber ermine; how’s that for holding dear the vestiges of a former, more cordial time?
Lawyers first address the judge with the somewhat ceremonial and exceedingly polite preface, “If it may please the Court … . ” Before approaching a witnesses or the judge, permission is always first requested. Generally, attorneys address each other as “counsel” and at times even “learned counsel” or “esteemed counsel.” Guffaw if you like but it’s true. And lawyers almost always “respectfully” disagree with one another.
There are passions, to be sure. The attorney’s job is, in substantial part, to be his client’s advocate. Zealous – even impassioned – representation is an ethical requirement. But it is also an ethical requirement for an attorney to be honest and respectful.
The rules go something like this:
A lawyer shall not knowingly:
• Make a false statement of material fact or law to a tribunal or fail to correct a false statement previously made;
• Fail to disclose legal authority directly adverse to the position taken by his client; or
• Offer evidence which the lawyer knows to be false.
Similarly, if a lawyer knows his client intends to engage in (or is engaging in) criminal or fraudulent activity, the lawyer must take appropriate corrective measures.
A lawyer must be “fair” to the opposing party and to the opposing party’s counsel. He may not:
• Obstruct access to evidence or God forbid, alter, conceal, or destroy evidence;
• Falsify evidence or assist a witness to offer false testimony;
• Knowingly disobey an obligation to the court unless making an open refusal based on the assertion that no valid obligation exists;
• Make frivolous discovery requests;
• Testify in a matter he is representing or state a personal opinion as to the justness of a cause; or
• Request a person other than his client to refrain from voluntarily giving relevant information to another party.
Additionally, a lawyer may not:
• Attempt to influence a judge or juror by means prohibited by law;
• Communicate during a proceeding with a judge or juror unless the other party’s counsel is included and with the consent of the court;
• Engage in any communication which is meant to misrepresent , coerce, harass or cause duress;
• Engage in communication which is likely to demean, embarrass, or criticize jurors or their verdicts; or
• Engage in conduct intended to disrupt the court.
A lawyer must be truthful in his statements to others. In the course of representing a client, the lawyer may not: i) make a false statement of material fact or law to a third person; or ii) fail to disclose a material fact to a third person when disclosure is necessary to avoid assisting in criminal activity or a fraudulent act.
Lawyers may not directly communicate about any substantive matter with a party known to be represented by another lawyer unless with the consent of the party’s lawyer.
A lawyer must furthermore respect the rights of third parties. In representing a client, a lawyer shall not:
• Employ means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay or burden a third party; or
• Retain, use or examine a document inadvertently sent to him by a third party. Neither may a lawyer threaten criminal prosecution in order to obtain an advantage in a civil matter.
These are only a handful of the many rules which apply to lawyer conduct and which ensure the dignity of legal proceedings.
By the way, “What ‘rules’?” you may be asking yourself. Well, the Rules of Professional Conduct, actually, which are just as hard-wired in the law as any other law, rule, code, or statute and to which all practicing attorneys are legally obliged.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his e-mail addresses, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com