Friday, May 8, 2009

Of clients and conscience

This morning I was in court and watched a guy ask the court to allow him to sell off part of a structured settlement. He had been in a bad car accident several years before, and as part of the settlement he received monthly payments and several significant lump-sum payments. It turns out that the guy had sold off parts of this settlement nearly a dozen times before, all to pay off debts or to start up new ill-conceived businesses ventures. Ever time he sold off part of the structured settlement, this guy got about 30-40% of the current value of the payments -- a terrible deal by any definition.

I am somewhat familiar with the attorney for the company that buys up these settlements. And with the economy in the tank, I've seen him in court pretty frequently with people selling off lots of money in order to pay their bills. The attorney is fairly pleasant, but I don't like him much because of what he does. To my mind, his entire legal practice revolves around taking advantage of ill-informed and short-sighted people. And lamentably, the laws governing these financial institutions in my state don't provide much protection for the consumers.

I got to thinking about how conscience can conflict with clients. One of the dilemmas an attorney occasionally faces is whether to accept a client with a reputation, history, or interests that run counter to the attorney's personal morality. This is often a morality based in religious beliefs, but non-religious attorneys also face moral dilemmas. As I watched the proceeding this morning, I realized that I wouldn't want to represent a company like the structured settlement buyer. I don't think my conscience would let me facilitate what I believe to be predatory transactions.

A friend of mine is very interested in First Amendment law, but after much thought he turned down a chance to work on an interesting Free Speech case because the client was a strip club. He believed that the operators of the club were entitled to the same Free Speech rights as you or I, but he ultimately decided he couldn't work on the case. This sort of dilemma is experienced by many Christian or religious legal practitioners. There may even be a few Mormon-specific moral dilemmas. For example, given the LDS Church's position on tobacco and alcohol, an LDS attorney might not feel capable of representing a cigarette or liquor company.

Similar moral dilemmas may arise in certain types of law. I've heard a lot of people say that their conscience wouldn't let them work in criminal defense. It may be surprising, but I don't think my conscience would prevent me from representing a criminal defendant. I've actually worked on criminal cases on both the prosecution and the defense side, and even guilty defendants deserve effective counsel. In a way, I would have a larger crisis of conscience doing structured settlement deals like the one I saw today than representing an accused child molester, because at least representing the accused molester serves the broader justice system.

I'm interested to hear from other people on this subject. Are there certain areas of law or clients that would conflict with your personal morality? Have you ever turned down a client or a transaction as a matter of conscience?