Time Essay: An Awful Lot of Lawyers Involved

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John W. Dean III, being of a tidy turn of mind, decided at one point to draw up a list of the names of Watergate figures who, in his opinion, had broken the law. They numbered 15, and so many of them shared a common characteristic that Dean marked down next to each of these names a star. Senator Herman Talmadge last week asked what the stars meant. Said Dean: "Just my first reaction—[that] there certainly are an awful lot of lawyers involved here. So I put a little asterisk beside each lawyer."—"Any significance to the star?" Talmadge persisted. "No," answered Dean, "that was just a reaction of mine, the fact that how in God's name could so many lawyers get involved in something like this?" It is a question that a lot of other lawyers (and non-lawyers too) have been asking themselves, since there has been no comparable conspiracy of lawyers in history. Indeed, the total number of attorneys involved in the vast case, including all the various prosecutors and defenders, and also including those who deny any wrongdoing, has been calculated at 125.

The high honor of the legal profession sometimes seems more apparent to the leaders of bar associations than to the general public.

There is even a lingering popular suspicion that lawyers are not always above sharp practice. Yet there is a special order of shame in the spectacle of attorneys not merely breaking the law but directly attacking and debasing its fundamental principles.

There is, for example, the vision—testified to but thus far neither proved nor disproved—of the nation's chief law-enforcement officer. Attorney General John Mitchell, casually listening to aides plot illegal wiretaps and break-ins, while at the same time overseeing various prosecutions of political dissenters for conspiracy.

Although ethics courses are not widely taught in law schools, lawyers are instructed by the American Bar Association's code of professional responsibility to avoid even "the appearance of impropriety." Many lawyers reflexively defend their profession against current criticisms by arguing, as did one Los Angeles attorney, that "those people had stopped being lawyers. They were either 'gofers' or politicians." Another argument currently heard in legal circles is that governmental scandals are bound to involve lawyers simply because there are so many lawyers in government. These defenses are not very persuasive. Lawyers are numerous in government partly because they are supposed to know enough law to prevent scandals, not to organize them. Nor do lawyers shed their training and their professional responsibilities just because they function as officials taking orders. Whether they appear as advocates for the state or for their clients, lawyers are essentially officers of the court, with all the strictures and obligations that that position implies.

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