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What Do You Call 10 Lawyers at the Bottom of the Ocean?

Federal judge Nora Manella, legal ethics scholar Laurie Levenson and Jonathan Shapiro, prosecutor and T.V. writer, headlined a panel discussion hosted by USC College and the USC Norman Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics.

By Pamela J. Johnson
April 1, 2007

What Do You Call 10 Lawyers at the Bottom of the Ocean?

Singing to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “Love and Marriage,” Jonathan Shapiro warbled:
 
“Law and eth-ics, law and eth-ics — they go together like nurture and gen-e-tics.”

Shapiro was a panelist during a recent discussion exploring ethics in the field of law. Others were Nora M. Manella, U.S. district judge and USC alumna, and Laurie L. Levenson, professor of law and director of the Center for Ethical Advocacy at Loyola Law School.

The event was sponsored by USC College and the newly created USC Norman Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics.

“The goal of the institute is to help students who are going into professional careers think about and ponder the ethical dilemmas that come with practicing their professions in the 21st century,” College Dean Peter Starr told the audience.

Moderator Hilary Schor, the College’s dean of undergraduate programs, offered students the opportunity to take ownership of the institute.

“You, the students, know the kinds of events you want us to put on so if you have any ideas about what is an institute for humanities and ethics, write to me,” said Schor, professor of English in the College and professor of law in the Gould School of Law.

During the discussion, Manella quoted Abraham Lincoln: “Resolve to be honest at all events. And if you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.”

“In other words, don’t go into the profession if you are not committed to an ethical standard,” she warned the students.

Despite countless jokes about crooked lawyers, she noted that licensed attorneys, unlike many other professions, have a code of ethics.

“When was the last time you saw a realtors’ code of ethics?” she asked, “or an auto mechanics’ code of ethics? Lawyers at least have their aspirations.”

And Levenson pointed out that the code of ethics is in place to protect an attorney from unscrupulous clients, as well.

“So a lawyer can go to a client and say, ‘Yes, I understand you’d like me to kill the other side, lie and do whatever we can to win,’ ” she said. “ ‘And I’d really like to do that for you, but the ethical code says I can’t.’ ”

Discussing high profile cases such as the molestation prosecution of superstar Michael Jackson and the murder trial of former football star O.J. Simpson, in which both defendants were acquitted, Levenson said dirty practices do not usually result in courtroom victories.

In the Jackson trial, for example, Levenson said the jury was swayed by a skilled cross-examination of the accuser.

“Jackson’s lawyer asked the young man, ‘You’re really mad at Michael, aren’t you?’ ” Levenson said. “And the kid said, ‘Yes.’ And then Jackson’s lawyer asked a question we actually teach people not to ask in law school, he asked, ‘Why?’ ”

If the accusations were true, Levenson said, the child might have said that he was angry because Jackson had molested him.

“But that’s not what the kid said,” Levenson said. “He said, ‘I’m mad because Michael was my best friend and he ditched me.’ ’’ That was the defense’s theory.

“Was that dirty lawyering to get the truth?” she asked. “The lawyer asked why and the truth came out.”

Conversely, she said, Simpson won the case because the district attorney’s office and the police department didn’t do their jobs.

“Prosecutors lost that case not because of what the defense did,” she said. “They lost that case because of what the prosecution didn’t do. It was a terrible prosecution. It was pathetic.”

Shapiro noted that the word “ethics” originates from the Greek word “ethos,” meaning a person’s moral character.

“The one thing I would say to anyone who’s considering a legal career is to check your own character before you go into it, or don’t go into it,” said Shapiro, writer for hit TV shows such as, “The Practice” and “Boston Legal.”

“Do you want to go into a profession that will challenge your ethics and character everyday?” he said.

In a discussion after the lectures, students had queries ranging from those about the day-to-day work of a lawyer to more theoretical questions such as the morality in defending truly heinous criminals.

Shapiro told students that ultimately, defense attorneys have the harder job.

“I get to stand up in court and say, ‘Jonathan Shapiro on behalf of the United States of America,’ ” Shapiro said of his prosecutorial duties. “And [the defense attorney] gets to stand up and say, ‘I’m Joe Schmo and I represent this schmuck here.’ That’s a hard job.”

No one is immune to an ethical lapse, he said, noting the controversy surrounding Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is accused of misleading Congress and firing eight U.S. Attorneys for political reasons.

Every lawyer experiences a defining ethical moment in his or her career, Shapiro said. His came when he was a young prosecutor working for the U.S. Justice Department in Washington. During an assault case, the victim asked him a question en route to the courtroom one day.

“The victim says to me, ‘I can’t remember, did he hit me with his left hand or his right hand?’ ” Shapiro recounted his confrontation with the opportunity to coach a witness. “And I want to win this case. It was going to be the entire heart of the examination. There is no one but God and me and this victim in the elevator. And I said, ‘Do the best you can.’ ”

Manella said good attorneys will follow their conscience.

“In life in general, resolving not to be a jerk is probably a good idea,” she said.

(In case you’re wondering about the headline, it was a joke told during the event by Judge Nora Manella. The punch line: A good start.)