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(Reuters) - For a truly bleak view of humanity, there’s nothing like perusing the “comments” section of an online article.
In my experience, the readers of Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper can be especially vicious. The vitriol they direct at Meghan Markle, for example, is enough to make me weep for our collective souls.
Which is why I was so intrigued to see that the Daily Mail on Sept. 11 covered – of all unlikely topics – lawyer defections from Boies Schiller Flexner.
The article, which attributes CNBC and Bloomberg for source material (though, ahem, we at Reuters have been covering this for months), blames the departure of dozens of attorneys last year in part on the firm’s aggressive work on behalf of former film producer and convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein and disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes.
Holmes is currently on trial in federal court in San Jose, California, for fraud, charges she has denied. Boies, who is not representing her, served on the now-defunct blood-testing company's board in addition to providing legal services.
The Daily Mail article has garnered more than 150 comments from its readers, whom I fully expected to tear the firm to shreds, because, well, that’s what anonymous online commenters usually do.
Instead, reader after reader recognized the duty of lawyers to represent unpopular clients. As “BenSanderson” from “Anytown USA” put it, “Everyone has a right to a legal defense no matter how terrible you think they are.”
“Georgie” from Chicago agreed, writing that “Everyone is a choosy princess these days. Lawyers defend people – sometimes bad people. All people deserve a defense.”
“Susan” from Texas chimed in: “I don't care for the defendants mentioned in this article, but they still have a right to competent representation in our justice system.”
To me, the response is heartening, making clear that people who (presumably) are not steeped in the legal profession still recognize that (as “mcw” put it) “A lawyer represents someone, doesn't necessarily agree with them.”
It’s a sentiment that David Boies, unsurprisingly, fully endorses.
“Readers of the article understand that the willingness of lawyers to represent clients and put the client’s interest above the lawyer’s image and interest is essential to protect all people,” he told me. “Average people get it better than commentators sometimes, or some law students.”
Last fall, 600 law students from Harvard, Yale, New York University and other elite schools pledged not to interview or work for Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison because of its work for ExxonMobil in climate change litigation.
“I grew up in an era in which attacks on lawyers for representing unpopular clients came mostly from the right,” Boies said, such as those defending civil rights workers in Mississippi or representing accused communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
“Today, a lot of criticism of lawyers for representing unpopular clients is coming from the left,” he said. “Once you start a culture that attacks lawyers for taking on clients that you believe are wrong, there’s a real danger that culture will deprive clients you think are right of good representation.”
Daily Mail reader “IndianaJim,” from Merrillville, a town in northwest Indiana, reached a similar conclusion, writing: “This is pretty chilling. When the lawyers go woke, and you get arrested for something against the crowd now, how will you get an adequate defense? So much for innocent till proven guilty.”
“Unitedwestand10” from the “North Pole” added, “Imagine working as a defense attorney and trying to only represent politically correct clients.”
Still, law firm and civil litigators do have a choice in the clients they take on. As I’ve noted before, they aren’t taxi cabs, obliged to pick up anyone who hails them and can pay the fare.
But once a lawyer has taken on a client – and when Boies first began representing Weinstein, for example, he was a highly regarded film producer – the lawyer shouldn’t walk away just because the going gets rough.
As Boies told me, “As I’ve said before, everyone deserves a lawyer, but not everyone deserves me. But I’ve also said that once I make a decision to represent a client, then I’m not free to decide I want to get out of it when it becomes a hot potato.”
The Daily Mail comments weren’t all sweetness and light, of course. Readers also offered up cracks like, "You know we're reaching Armageddon when lawyers start having 'morals'" as well a sampling of lawyer jokes.
Among them: “Q: What's the difference between a dead skunk and a dead lawyer in the roadway? A: No brake marks in front of the lawyer” and “What do you have when you have a lawyer up to his neck in concrete? Not enough concrete!”
But the overall tenor of the comments tells a different story about the public perception of lawyers. People get it. They want lawyers to represent good guys and bad guys alike, and to do their jobs well.
Or as “Real Regal Beagle” from Massachusetts put it, “Even a-holes need representation.”
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