Let’s say you are a lawyer who happens to be a white supremacist who wants to revoke the citizenship of all non-whites and deport them. Like oh, say, William Daniel Johnson. Would you sign up for your state’s lawyer referral service? And if you did, would you feel the need to mention your white supremacist views to your clients? How about the non-white ones?
That’s what one non-white Redditor who got Johnson as a referral from the LA County Bar Association is wondering. And he is being told (correctly as a matter of professional ethics) that a lawyer’s personal views, odious though we may find them, do not necessarily make him unfit to represent someone. The more important question, I think, is whether a lawyer with these sort of extremist views ought to disclose those views to a potential client.
I think so.
Here, I think, is a rule to practice by: If you believe your clients would care about something — in other words, if you think it would make a difference in their decision to hire you — you should tell them about it. That goes for law school graduation dates as well as your brilliant plan to deport the majority of the U.S. population.
This rule is not just for hatemongering racists. It goes for lack of experience, too. New lawyers are especially afraid nobody will hire them due to their lack of experience. It is not true, of course. Most people don’t care, but they still want to know about it. A couple of years ago, I switched from suing debt collectors to representing tech startups. I educated myself as well as I could, and found several mentors, but I still had little or no experience with business matters. Because I thought this would be important information for my clients to have, I told them.
Here’s how that conversation usually went:
Me: I want to be completely up-front with you. I have never drafted an employment agreement before. If you want a lawyer with a lot of experience to do it, I can probably help you find one. Otherwise, I would really like to take your case, because I plan to draft a lot of employment agreements in the future, and I need to start somewhere.
Client: Okay, if you think you can handle it, I will hire you.
Me: I am confident I can put together an employment agreement that suits your needs, in particular because I have already spoken to a lawyer I am friends with who has agreed to review it before I hand it over to you.
Client: That’s good enough for me. Where do I sign?
It works similarly if you just graduated from law school. Chances are good it will not go as smoothly if you hold extremist views.
Is my rule a slippery slope? Should Republicans feel the need to disclose their party affiliation to clients who are Democrats? Should cat people disclose their preference to dog owners?
No, unless they have a reason to believe that information would be important to the client. I think these situations are usually pretty obvious. When they aren’t, I think lawyers are generally qualified to make a judgment call. When in doubt, disclose.
In particular, if you hold extremist views that would upset a majority of the population, disclose them to your client and let him or her decide.