Every year around this time, a few of my law students ask me to serve as a “moral character” reference for them. Those of you who are not lawyers may not know that such references are a cornerstone of our profession, reflecting lawyers’ position of public trust in our society. That trust has been repeatedly broken by former President Donald Trump’s lawyers — most recently by John Eastman, the former dean of Chapman University School of Law, and one of the architects of the plan to send slates of fake electors to vote in the Electoral College.
There are good reasons why lawyers hold such a position of trust. We have the ability to deeply affect the lives of our clients, whether they be private individuals or groups, or in the case of government attorneys, the public. We make decisions that can cost our clients not just their life savings but in some criminal cases, their lives. We may also seek to make fundamental changes to the laws in our country, much in the vein of the late Justices Thurgood Marshall, who dedicated his life to racial equality, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dedicated hers to gender equality.
Simply put, with power comes responsibility.
As a result, we are rightly held to a higher ethical standard than members of other professions. Simply put, with power comes responsibility. Thus, before law students can become lawyers, they must prove that they are of good moral character. This may involve not only taking an exam but also completing something called a moral character application, which is in many ways akin to a background check. Part of this application includes obtaining references who can attest to one’s character. And that’s where law professors like me enter the picture.
Furthermore, once one passes that moral character vetting process, not to mention the bar exam, future lawyers must also take an oath to become a member of the bar. The oath requires that applicants pledge to uphold the U.S. and state constitutions of where they plan to practice, and to faithfully execute their duties as a lawyer. In California, for example, applicants are required to swear to “faithfully discharge the duties of an attorney and counselor at law to the best of my knowledge and ability. As an officer of the court, I will strive to conduct myself at all times with dignity, courtesy and integrity.”
Former Trump lawyer John Eastman expected to face criminal referralDec. 19, 202201:20
Simply put, before someone can enter the hallowed halls of our profession, we need to know we can trust that person. Less than ethical lawyers could abuse that trust — and their clients' trust — by, say, misusing or stealing a client’s money. Other examples could include breaking a trust on a far larger scale. For example, one could advise the president of the United States to file frivolous lawsuits based on lies but not law, or to devise an unconstitutional scheme to steal a presidential election. In these cases, you’ve fundamentally shown yourself undeserving of holding a position of public trust.
We all rely on lawyers to uphold their duties as advocates and, at the very least, not to seek to undermine our legal system.
Trump’s lawyers are in hot water for doing just that. Remember “America’s Mayor” turned Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani? So does a bar disciplinary committee in Washington, D.C. It recently agreed that Giuliani violated at least one rule of professional conduct in his efforts to try to undermine the 2020 presidential election results. Guiliani could lose his ability to practice law in the nation's capital as a result.
Sidney Powell, another one of Trump’s attorneys during the 2020 presidential election era, faces a similar fate in Texas. The Lone Star State may soon conclude that Powell’s legal shenanigans in the aftermath of the presidential election should be punished with disbarment.
And most recently, the State Bar of California announced that it would seek to disbar Eastman. The Office of the California Bar Chief Trial Counsel said Eastman faces nearly a dozen disciplinary charges related to false statements he made that helped gin up the angry mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Most lawyers are not like Trump’s lawyers. This is true despite the fact that there's an entire cottage industry of “lawyer jokes.” (Indeed, one of the more famous lines from William Shakespeare’s "Henry VI" is “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”)
Despite the fact that lawyers are the punch lines of many jokes, our society depends on them, the advice they give and the work they do. And therefore, we all rely on lawyers to uphold their duties as advocates and, at the very least, not to seek to undermine our legal system. People like Guiliani, Powell and Eastman do not deserve the honor and responsibility that comes with being members of the bar.