“Mr. Beaver, several years ago you wrote about a lawyer’s reputation – how valuable it is. As a superior court judge in our small southern town for over 20 years is what I tell law graduates who have passed the latest bar exam when they gather in my office and take the oath of attorney.
“The idea that law is a profession and that our duty is to help clients and their families through some of the most difficult times in their lives is a foreign concept to many young lawyers. It seems the only thing most think about is getting rich ASAP – and cutting ethical corners is okay.
“I gave each of these new lawyers a copy of your story. In just a few weeks, the bar results will be released, and if your editors reproduce this wonderful story, it could do some good, because the message does not only apply to lawyers. Thanks, EJ, Georgia.
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To the many lawyers who have read this column, in the next few minutes, walk down the halls of memory with me to those turbulent weeks before final first-year law school exams.
Help students prepare for tests
It’s a time of intense review, study group meetings, and common practice at law schools across America – allowing students to examine the complexity and wide scope of drafting questions. from the previous final exam, as many of the same issues will show up on new tests.
At my school, Loyola in downtown Los Angeles, these exams—many of which date back years—were kept in a blue binder, which the librarian gave to any student who asked for them. You go to the photocopier, drop off some coins and make your copies.
This gives freshmen more than just a taste of what final exams look like. With the blessing of the law school, this is an opportunity to analyze the structure and content of past tests. Practice is incredibly valuable. I’m sure that without this opportunity, many would have done much worse in the final.
It was a week before the finals when I saw my study group friend, let’s call him Steve, with his girlfriend at the photocopier, making copies.
They lived together in a nicely furnished apartment near campus that was always well stocked with fine wine, expensive cheese, and other goodies, thanks — I was told — to her parents.
The true colors of a future lawyer revealed
During one of those study sessions, Steve said something that I thought was twisted humor or a disgusting reason to study law: “Once we pass the bar, we’ll be allowed to fuck people.”
When he said that, I studied his face, realizing he looked like a rat! He really looked like an overgrown rat with bulging eyes! As I would soon discover, his appearance revealed a potential future lawyer, lacking in ethics, integrity and morality.
A few days later I tried to make a few copies, but everything the machine produced was unreadable and smudged, completely worthless. But Steve was dutifully copying all the freshman exams into the file, aided by his girlfriend. She was adorable, with a soft face that showed little emotion as she and Steve replaced the clean originals with trash.
She was also heavily pregnant.
The consequences of what they were doing were sickeningly obvious. It went beyond cheating. It was immorality on a scale that could impact the entire freshman class.
Shady behavior now foreshadows shady behavior to come
“How can you do this?” I asked them. Turning to her, I asked in a tone that wasn’t exactly looking for an answer, “How can you help her do this to all her classmates?” I have been to your apartment several times. How do you justify doing this to me and your friends in our study group? I added, “Don’t you understand?” You are carrying her child and not married. How he treats others is how he will treat you when, not if, but when things go wrong. Return the originals now!
We had studied cases of people doing precisely this sort of thing in contracts and torts, and yet here I was, staring at a couple’s faces with no sense of morality. If Steve passed the bar, he would indeed be using his license as he described.
“Hand over the originals now, Steve,” I repeated over and over. “Hand them over now, or I’ll go to the dean’s office.” It’s up to you.”
He looked at me, laughed nervously, and put them all back in place. To make sure he wouldn’t come back later and try the same thing, I walked straight to where the head librarian was standing, looked in Steve’s direction, and walked over. talked about the weather, but I waved my hand like I was making photocopies. Steve, I’m sure, got the message. The librarian probably thought I was nervous before the exam.
Twice a day until the end of finals, I checked the blue folder. The originals remained in place.
Steve failed at school. I never wanted a classmate to fail, but I did in his case.
Bad impressions are hard to reverse
Most lawyers who wreck their reputation usually wait until they have graduated from law school and been sworn in as a member of the bar. Steve was ahead of the curve. If he had really become a lawyer, however competent or brilliant, our paths would have crossed, the only image of him in my mind would still be that of a thief.
Our reputation – with classmates who will become colleagues, partners and the judges before whom we will stand – is one of the most fragile things we have. Handle it with care.
In my years of practice, I have found that most do.
This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing advisor, not Kiplinger’s editorial staff. You can check advisor records with the SEC (opens in a new tab) or with FINRA (opens in a new tab).