Yesterday’s headline in the Texas Lawyer read: “Hot Public Opinions Cost Two Paxton Aides Dearly”.
The attorneys it refers to both worked for Ken Paxton (the Texas Attorney General) and both made statements that became public and that were, by any reasonable standard, extremely offensive. The article reports the following:
-Jeff Mateer said he believes transgender children are part of “Satan’s Plan.”
This cost Mateer his nomination for a federal judgeship, but not his job at the AG’s office as Ken Paxton’s right-hand man. According to the Texas Lawyer, Attorney General Paxton says that Mateer continues to have his full support.
-Andrew Leonie wrote a Facebook post complaining that women who report harassment or abuse using the hashtag #metoo are “pathetic.”
This cost Leonie his job at the Texas OAG; unlike Mateer, he was asked to resign, presumably because there are more female than transgender voters.
For those in politics opinions have political consequences. But it also matters that these opinions came from lawyers. Whether our jobs are public or private almost everything we do has the potential to become public. In the age of cell phone video, retweets, reposts and downloads lawyers should be cautious about making statements of personal opinion, not just for self preservation, but also to maintain the integrity of the legal profession.
Our ethics rules exist to maintain the integrity of the legal profession. And that does not just mean avoiding grievable conduct. It also means conducting ourselves in a way that generates the kind of respect for the profession and courts necessary to have a functioning legal system.
Almost every day brings another story of lawyers exercising their right to have an opinion and to express it to unhappy results. Sometimes the speaker is simply trying to show off or to trend on Twitter, since in the age of endless self-promotion we are encouraged to brag about everything on the internet. Other statements no doubt reflect deeply held religious or moral beliefs. This means making important choices, because sometimes our most deeply held beliefs may not be consistent with our professional and societal obligations as lawyers. But while the internet encourages us to express ourselves loudly and publicly about every passing thought, that doesn’t mean it is a good idea to do so.
This is partly a matter of self preservation.
Take, for example, the tweet that cost a Texas lawyer his job last fall. In response to the Trump administration’s plan to reform how accusations of sexual assault are adjudicated on campus he tweeted: “I’m not wishing for it… but I’d be ok if #BetsyDevos was sexually assaulted.”
Maybe he was trying to be funny—if he was, not everyone got the joke. As reported in the Washington Times, the founder of the firm where the lawyer worked announced the lawyer’s resignation and said that the tweet had been “an enormous distraction” that had taken away from the firm’s mission “to care for and help people.”
What lawyers say and do matters, not just because a rude or inappropriate statement could torpedo a lawyer’s chance to become a Federal Judge, but because in addition to being community leaders and role models; we are “guardians of the law.” We are public servants charged with helping in the administration of justice. It’s right there in the opening paragraph of the Rules. Folks should look up to us, and, as the comic books note, with great power comes great responsibility.
Consider starting next year with a renewed commitment to professionalism. To civility. To privacy. To respecting others. For lawyers that means that sometimes you just keep your personal opinions to yourself. That to best serve your current AND future clients and maintain the integrity of the profession you remember that in all you do lawyers are different.
Even if you don’t give one whit about the larger legal profession and what the general public thinks of lawyers as a result of something you say or do, don’t forget that members of your firm, your clients, and the judges you practice before may care. Many of the self-sabotaging statements by lawyers that have recently come to light have been on social media platforms where the statements could be and often are later deleted; but, of course—nothing on the internet is ever really gone. In those cases, it will be out there for potential clients (and Senate confirmation committees) to see forever.
If you won’t do it for the profession —do it for yourself.