Today, we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. To honor the day, I am reposting something that I wrote around this time last year. It remains one of my favorite posts. Enjoy!

I’ll be frank. I don’t always love being a lawyer.

When I was a little girl, I used to watch Perry Mason with my grandfather on TBS. That constituted my entire legal experience before entering law school. And it was flawed.

You see, on TV, none of the lawyers lied to Perry Mason over the phone about being amenable to a continuance and then told the Clerk of Court differently. Nobody faxed Perry Mason a witness list the day before a hearing along with evidence that they “forgot” to send prior. A lawyer didn’t claim proper service on Perry Mason and then fail to deliver the notices to his law offices. You never saw a lawyer represent clients who had sent Perry Mason death threats via email attempt to assert that Mr. Mason was the one being unreasonable. You didn’t see cases drag on for years and years (yes, plural) because counsel just couldn’t get it together enough to resolve the matter. On TV, no matter how dire, how dramatic, there was ultimately justice.

The law is supposed to be about justice, about finding the truth. And increasingly it feels like it’s not. It’s more about touting your wares, putting yourself on commercials during daytime television standing in front of legal books shouting about maximizing money, about doing anything to get paid. And that is sad.

A few months ago, I attended a hearing that made me question my role in the law. You’re probably assuming that the hearing somehow didn’t go well. That isn’t true. It went remarkably well. Our client was an excellent witness. The judge was fair and very accommodating. We walked out of the hearing knowing that we had done a good job. The thing was, I felt relieved that it was over. I was happy for my clients. But I wasn’t happy for me. Truth be told, I hated every minute of preparing for the case. Well, not every minute. The theory, the strategy? That I didn’t mind. Our strategy was simply to tell our story. And we somehow felt that should be enough. In the end, I think it was.

But the getting there? The games? The complete lack of professionalism exhibited by opposing counsel? Lying about continuances? Surprise witnesses? Last minute evidence? Maybe that seems exciting on TV but in real life, it’s not exciting. It’s sickening. It’s stressful. It’s not fair to good lawyers who spend their time crafting a case. It’s not fair to clients who don’t know what to expect in the court room. And yet somehow, month after month, this behavior doesn’t seem so unusual.

And as opposing counsel sat at her chair in her too tight blouse with the clickety-click of her little heels on the floor, the same counsel who called my clients’ claims frivolous, the same counsel whose supervising partner at Big Law Firm once commented to me that she didn’t understand why a small firm like mine would go up against a big firm like hers, I thought about why we were all at that place, how it all happened that we were in the same room believing two different versions of the truth. I couldn’t explain it.

Later that same day, while reaching for my Moscow Mule (yes, my favorite cocktail du jour, even before Rachael Ray put it in her magazine last month – grr) at the Union League, I understood why the partner at my former firm kept a bottle of wine in his desk: the pressure of being a lawyer, the pressure of having to win, it’s a lot to take in. And while other professions can often look to each other for reassurance, we don’t really have that in the legal profession with few exceptions. It is, by its very nature, adversarial. It is competitive. It is cut throat. And me? I am not. Of course, I like to win. I like to think that I am good at it. And then maybe I think that’s not something to be particularly proud of.

So, over the past few weeks, which have been professionally difficult, I have tried to remember why it is exactly that I became a lawyer – and what about it I used to love. And I was reminded of my favorite scene in the movie Philadelphia. The one where Andrew Beckett sums up what’s actually good about the law:

Joe Miller: What do you love about the law, Andrew?

Andrew Beckett: I… many things… uh… uh… What I love the most about the law?

Joe Miller: Yeah.

Andrew Beckett: It’s that every now and again – not often, but occasionally – you get to be a part of justice being done. That really is quite a thrill when that happens.

And so I tried to think of when that happened last – when justice was actually done. Not when I won a case or when I got a client out of trouble – that happens often enough. But remember, winning and justice aren’t the same thing. I had to think for awhile.

Later, I was preparing to write post about Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I figured I’d just put up a copy of his famous “I Have A Dream” speech and call it a day. But as I researched, I found part of his autobiography which, I will confess, I have never read in full. And I saw something interesting: I knew that Dr. King had been arrested several times for various accusations, but I didn’t realize that he had been on trial for tax evasion.

Yep. On February 17, 1960, a warrant was issued for the arrest of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on charges of tax evasion. He was accused of allegedly falsifying his Alabama income tax returns for the years 1956 and 1958; he was the only person ever prosecuted under the state’s income tax perjury statute. It seemed like an inevitable victory for the government.

In his autobiography, Dr. King described the trial like this:

This case was tried before an all-white Southern jury. All of the State’s witnesses were white. The judge and the prosecutor were white. The courtroom was segregated. Passions were inflamed. Feelings ran high. The press and other communications media were hostile. Defeat seemed certain, and we in the freedom struggle braced ourselves for the inevitable. There were two men among us who persevered with the conviction that it was possible, in this context, to marshal facts and law and thus win vindication. These men were our lawyers-Negro lawyers from the North: William Ming of Chicago and Hubert Delaney from New York.

And something quite remarkable happened. On May 28, 1960, only after a few hours, Dr. King was acquitted by an all white jury in Montgomery, Alabama.

Dr. King said about his trial:

I am frank to confess that on this occasion I learned that truth and conviction in the hands of a skillful advocate could make what started out as a bigoted, prejudiced jury, choose the path of justice. I cannot help but wish in my heart that the same kind of skill and devotion which Bill Ming and Hubert Delaney accorded to me could be available to thousands of civil rights workers, to thousands of ordinary Negroes, who are every day facing prejudiced courtrooms.

And it dawned on me: no matter how many slick-haired, silver-tongued attorneys do their best to make a quick buck at the expense of the reputation of the profession, you can’t dispute that justice is attainable. And justice is good. And justice is important. And even if it is infrequent, it’s worth it when it happens.

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Kelly Phillips Erb is a tax attorney, tax writer, and podcaster.


  1. Wayne Phillips Reply

    This makes a parent proud!! Justice is a major pillar for our society, our Republic. Justice supports the Four Freedoms Franklin spoke so often about:
    “Speech, Worship, From Want and From Fear”. Without justice these would not be attainable for our citizens.

  2. Great post. I went into the law for public service and am one of the few people I know who ended up there and stayed there. But some days, it’s hard, like last week when I got dressed down by a judge and my first thought was I am not paid enough for this sh*t.

    But still, most days, are good days.

  3. Great post. MLK represents so much that is good and write about our society. We need so many more like him, especially in these difficult times.

  4. I absolutely loved reading this post. Remember that what is important is that you embody the highest ethics and devotion to our profession. My favorite law professor told me “always take the high road.” That is incredibly difficult at times, as you know, but it is those that remember why the became lawyers, and maintain that philosophy throughout the practice, that give lawyers a good name.

    I am proud to call you my colleague, very, very proud.

  5. Dad, glad to read that I made you proud! You and Mom are where I get my sense of right and wrong from…

    Jodiur, you are a dying breed! But we need more folks to commit to public service. I do a lot of pro bono work in the law and it’s distressing how much need there is. Kudos to you!

    Brian, thanks, that’s so nice of you to say. I never understand how folks could throw their sense of right and wrong out of the window in exchange for a dollar. If we don’t have ethics, we have chaos.

  6. I’m not a lawyer, but I work with many fine, dedicated, principled lawyers who believe in justice and fairness. We view mission as defending not just the person, but the Constitution. We view it a “win” when we can make sure police and prosecutors follow the laws they are sworn to enforce and when our clients’ sentence is just. Just a few days ago we had a client who sincerely expressed remorse for his misconduct and grateful for a 7 1/2 year sentence. It was the right result. (Of course, the state wanted 45 years).

  7. It IS truly wonderful when justice prevails. But it should not be such a hit and miss process, no with people’s lives on the line.

    I have been very fortunate. Most of the attorneys with whom I’ve worked over the years (and there have been many) have been honorable, intelligent people trying to do the best they knew how for their clients, i.e., I was not working around criminal law, which seems to breed the smarmiest of beings.

    The entire legal profession would do much better if all attorneys knew that serious bar complaints from opposing counsel, judges and even court clerks would follow sleazy tricks. It is time that the “good ole boy” country club approach to self-policing the legal profession gave way to modern understandings of the ways it is not working, and the smoke coming from lawyer jokes is but a hint of the blaze of frustration felt in many quarters. If attorneys want to continue to control their professional lives, they need to stand up and do real police work to clear out the bad and incompetent apples or at some point a new regulatory structure with more citizen control of the justice apparatus will be put in place.

    One of the bright spots for Americans remains our jury system. Even as the all-white jury acquitted Dr. King of a trumped charge, so do many juries, often laboring under less than humane conditions, make every effort to faithfully discharge their oaths. And thank God for everyone who turns up and serves. There is a reason the framers, despite many of them being lawyers, made sure that this safety valve was put into the system. I will work even better when the sources of the lawyer jokes are all cleared out!

  8. Writer CPA, did I read that right? Criminal lawyers are the problem in the Bar? 60% of my clients are lawyers. 95% of them civil lawyers. I trust you’re kidding?

  9. Let me try to rephrase WriterCPA:

    Most of the lawyers with whom I’ve worked over the years (and there have been many) have been honorable, intelligent people trying to do the best they knew how for their clients. I just know that lawyers are smarmy, though (because my culture tells me so). I don’t have any real experience with criminal lawyers, so that field must be that criminal law where the smarmy ones are hiding.

  10. No Brian, No Mark, what he’s saying is that he’s never had to work around prosecutors. That smarmy comment perfectly describes our district attorneys…

  11. Let me be more exact. Most of the attorneys with whom I have worked have been in securities, government/administrative law, and environmental law. For the most part, they have been upright and a credit to humanity.

    Unfortunately, along the way I have had the displeasure of first hand observation of attorneys practicing criminal law (once as a juror, twice as a witness, although being a witness in a securities or admin case means being investigated and treated with hostility really due to the defendant.)

    As a juror, I could not believe the attorney would allow his client to take the stand with a defense of thinly veiled untruths. (State trooper busted for soliciting a undercover posing as a prostitute and tried to argue he was actually doing an unauthorized, impromptu, undercover investigation of his own. — Conviction did not take long, except for the old lady who said, “but he’s so cute.” — the rest of us said, “cute liar” and brought her around to thinking liars are not cute, especially in state trooper uniforms.)

    As for being a witness, it seemed the defense attorneys were always trying to pull a fast one, and, for that matter, the prosecutors were only about one step better and required careful watching. (“No, that is NOT my statement. What I said was…” — how many times must one say that?) Yesterday, my best friend called in tears because she is awitness in a manslaughter case. She was crying because a sloppy NYC DA didn’t get her camera stick from her 18 months ago and is mad that “you compromised the evidence by erasing it after you gave us the copies.” — My friend is an artist, who happened to be at a party where she photographed the defendant just before a very public crime occurred — how was it her job to preserve the evidence, and where does this incompetent get off beating up on my friend for her own mistakes?

    And when will public defenders show some integrity and refuse to take more cases than they can handle? A friend of my cousin was 16 when he got picked up on a bogus charge that was later dismissed and expunged. If my cousin had not been there to tell the kid to ignore the public defender, an innocent 16 year old would have followed advice to “just plead to it, it’s not big deal.” Guess it wasn’t — we were only talking about the future of a 16 yr. old African-American male.

    So no, I don’t have a good opinion of the criminal bar, even though I like most of the other attorneys I know. In the recent issue of “Super Lawyers” for Baltimore, I counted more than a dozen as friends who I can call on the phone and ask out to lunch from associations at work or on not-for-profit boards. Each one of these fine men and women do work for improving the world and seeking justice. I wish I could say as much for so many other members of the Bar.

    (I am aware there are problems in civil litigation, but thank God, I have not first hand exposure to this bunch.)


  12. Now I see your problem WriterCPA. You have no understanding of how the system works, and like a child who won’t play a game they don’t understand and say they “don’t like” the game because of their ignorance, you blame the criminal bar for incivility and “sleazy” tactics when your criticism is only based on a lack of understanding. You watch from a far, and use generalizations to give us a blanket pass.

    You ask why a defense attorney would “allow” his client to take the stand? It is the defendant’s right under the Constitution. Would you rather the defense lawyer force his client to remain silent and then have the case reversed on appeal? That criticism, from someone who claims to work in the system, is absolutely the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.

    When will public defenders not take on more than they can handle? When will legislatures, with the civil lawyers you love so much stop passing laws that require public defenders to take on cases “regardless of workload?” Did you know that? Are you aware that public defenders can be held in contempt for not taking cases? Probably not.

    Your opinion of the criminal bar is noted.

  13. Fear of loss on appeal is not a rationale for suborning perjery, IMHO, but I’m not an attorney, so who knows, there must be an ethics rule that covers letting a client do this as part of a defense.

    Silly me, I thought we were talking about actually pursuing justice, not playing games. But then, I have little use for legislative budget shenanigans or cowardly judges who hold individual attorneys in contempt when they should haul in the governor and and everyone else responsible for establishing funding for the office of the public defender.

    The fact that others are playing a game does no mean I can’t call denounce proceedings for the “childish” affair that it is and, as a citizen, who isn’t an attorney, demand change, including seeking support from others who think we can, and should, do better to join in seeking that change.

    Which gets us back on topic — why we should not accept an imperfect status quo.

  14. Prior to seeking change, the idea would be that the person seeking change has a clue what they are talking about, and not just ranting and putting their total ignorance about the topic on display for the entire internet to see.

  15. No, you’re not a lawyer. If you were — or rather, if you were a lawyer acquainted with the criminal courthouse, which narrows the field considerably — you would know that one of the few decisions that is the client’s alone is whether to testify. You might also know that if the lawyer doesn’t honor the client’s decision, the result is that the client wins on appeal.

    Orthogonally, you might also know what “suborn” means, and how to spell “perjury”. (So you claim to be in the writing business, eh?)

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