“Mr. Beaver, several years ago you wrote a story about a lawyer’s reputation – how valuable it is. As a Superior Court judge in our small Southern town for over 20 years, that is what I tell the law graduates who successfully passed the most recent bar examination when they assemble in my chambers and take the attorney’s oath.
“The idea that law is a profession and our duty is to help clients and their families through some of the most difficult moments of their lives is a foreign concept to many young lawyers. It seems as if the only thing most think about is becoming wealthy as soon as possible – and cutting ethical corners is no big deal.
“I have handed each of these newly minted attorneys a copy of your story. In just a few weeks, bar results will be out, and if your editors will reprint that wonderful story, it might do some real good, as the message applies not only to lawyers. Thanks, E.J., in Georgia.
To the many lawyers who read this column, in the next few minutes, wander the corridors of memory with me back to those hectic weeks before final exams during the first year at law school.
Helping students prepare for tests
It is a time of intense review, study group meetings and a common practice in law schools across America — allowing students the opportunity to review the complexity and broad scope of previous final exam essay questions, as many of the same issues will appear on new tests.
At my school, Loyola, in downtown Los Angeles, these exams — many going back years — were kept in a blue binder, which the librarian handed to any student who requested it. Over to the photocopier you’d walk, deposit a few coins and make your copies.
This gives first-year students much more than a glimpse of what final exams look like. With the law school’s blessing, it is the chance to analyze the structure and content of prior tests. The practice is of incredible value. I am sure that without that opportunity, many would have done a lot worse on their finals.
It was a week before finals when I saw my study group friend, let’s call him Steve, with his girlfriend at the photocopy machine, making copies.
They lived together in a beautifully furnished apartment near campus that was always well stocked with great wine, expensive cheese and other goodies, courtesy — I was told — of his parents.
True colors of a future lawyer revealed
During one of these study sessions, Steve said something that I thought was either twisted humor or a disgusting reason to study law: “Once we pass the bar, we’ll be licensed to screw people over.”
When he said that, I studied his face, realizing that he looked like a rat! He really looked like an overgrown, beady-eyed rat! As I would soon discover, his appearance revealed a potential future lawyer, lacking ethics, integrity and morality.
Several days later, I tried to make a few copies, but everything the machine produced was unreadable and smeared, completely worthless. But Steve was dutifully copying all the first-year exams in the folder, helped by his girlfriend. She was lovely, with a sweet face that revealed little emotion as she and Steve replaced the clean originals with garbage.
She was also very pregnant.
The consequences of what they were doing was sickeningly obvious. It went beyond cheating. This was immorality on a scale that could impact the entire first-year class.
Shady behavior now foreshadows shady behavior to come
“How can you do this?” I asked them. Turning to her, I asked in a tone that did not exactly seek a reply, “How can you help him do this to all his classmates? I have been to your apartment many times. How do you justify doing this to me and your friends in our study group?” I added, “Don’t you get it? You are carrying his child and not married. The way he is treating others is how he will treat you when, not if, but when things turn bad. Put the originals back now!”
We had studied cases about people who do precisely these kinds of things in contracts and torts, and yet, here I was, staring into the faces of a couple with no sense of morality. Were Steve to pass the bar, he would indeed use his license the way he described.
“Put the originals back now, Steve,” I repeated, over and over again. “Put them back now, or I will go to the dean’s office. It’s your choice.”
He looked at me, laughed nervously and put them all back. As insurance that he would not return later and try the same thing, I walked directly to where the head librarian was standing, looked in Steve’s direction and talked about the weather, but made large hand gestures as if I were making photocopies. Steve, I’m sure, got the message. The librarian probably thought that I was suffering from pre-exam jitters.
Twice daily until finals were over, I checked the blue folder. The originals remained in place.
Steve flunked out of school. I had never wished that a classmate would fail, but I did in his case.
Bad impressions are tough to turn around
Most attorneys who demolish their reputations usually wait until after graduation from law school and being sworn in as a member of the bar. Steve was ahead of the curve. Had he actually become a lawyer, no matter how able or brilliant, were our paths to cross, the only image of him in my mind would still be that of a thief.
Our reputation — with classmates who will become colleagues, partners and the judges before whom we will stand — is one of the most fragile things we possess. Handle it with care.
Across my years of practice, I’ve found that most do.
After attending Loyola University School of Law, H. Dennis Beaver joined California's Kern County District Attorney's Office, where he established a Consumer Fraud section. He is in the general practice of law and writes a syndicated newspaper column, "You and the Law." Through his column he offers readers in need of down-to-earth advice his help free of charge. "I know it sounds corny, but I just love to be able to use my education and experience to help, simply to help. When a reader contacts me, it is a gift."
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