Gillers delivers call-to-arms lecture for lawyers to return honor to profession

In a speech at Manhattan's Central Synagogue, Stephen Gillers, Emily Kempin Professor of Law, called for lawyers to “stop being skilled facilitators of whatever legal goal a paying client may desire” and to practice saying “no” when those goals are morally wrong.

“A lawyer who uses his or her legal education and skills to distort the law, to destroy the rule of law, because he or she is adept at manipulating language, when no judge, no adversary, is watching, is as blameworthy as the client,” Gillers said in his February 13 speech titled "Is Law (Still) An Honorable Profession?" “You cannot hide behind your professional mask.”

Gillers discussed the ways lawyers and accountants have assisted in exploiting the trust of vulnerable people in order to serve their clients and enrich themselves.

He likened the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s to the Bernard Madoff scandal, noting that in our highly regulated society it would be impossible to operate a business such as Madoff’s without the help of lawyers and accountants.

“Did none of them know?” he asked. “Did none have suspicions? Did they look the other way? We will, in time, I hope, get answers to these questions. Unfortunately, they are not new questions. They are asked in the wake of all great frauds.”

Gillers faulted the New York courts for not adopting recent changes to the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which make it easier for lawyers to reveal client information to stop fraud or prevent great harm. “We’re backsliding here in New York, the nation’s financial capital,” he said.

Gillers said that loyalty to a client does not require a lawyer to aid morally offensive goals, even if they are legal. “Lawyers may say, ‘but if I decline, someone else will do it. So what is gained?’ My reply: ‘Let someone else do it. But not you. Honor is personal. Worry about yourself. You don’t get a pass from moral responsibility because you acted for a client.”

Read more about the speech in the St. Petersburg Times