Defense Department official Charles Stimson showed ignorance and malice in deploring the pro bono representation of Guantanamo detainees by lawyers in some of the nation’s leading law firms, and in calling on their corporate clients to punish them for this work.
That some of the law firms Mr. Stimson singles out represent large employers defending discrimination and disability suits, major corporations accused of price fixing, securities fraud and pollution is not because the right hand — so to speak — does not know what the left is doing, nor because these firms are major-league hypocrites. On the contrary, they act in the best traditions of the profession — traditions that are ignored in today’s China or Putin’s Russia.
It is the pride of a nation built on the rule of law that it affords to every man a zealous advocate to defend his rights in court, and of a liberal profession in such a nation that not only is the representation of the dishonorable honorable (and any lawyer is free to represent any person he chooses), but that it is the duty of the profession to make sure that every man has that representation. So, for instance, it is only the ideologically blinded who would criticize the great John W. Davis for having presented the case for school segregation to the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education, or the ignorant who did not know that he had denounced the Ku Klux Klan and, as Solicitor General, had defended the voting rights of African-Americans.
All that can be said in explanation, if not mitigation, of Mr. Stimson’s egregious statements is that he may have been led on by the extravagant rhetoric of ideologues at the other end of the spectrum, who regularly inveigh against law firms which make their living by defending corporate interests accused of abusing employees, consumers and the environment. It was a regular event on law school campuses to see such ideologues picketing campus recruiters from these law firms, and to hear speeches by professors and even law school deans deploring the fact that graduates regularly took up employment in them.
And the hapless Mr. Stimson may also have fallen victim to that lawyers’ occupational disease, Acquired Conviction Syndrome. It is too bad that lawyers in this country feel bound not only to submit the best possible arguments for their clients — virtuous or deplorable — but also to stump for them in the press, before legislative bodies and in professional organizations. Debate in the American Bar Association and American Law Institute, for instance, has been degraded in recent years by their members carrying their representation of their clients’ interest into fora in which their best independent expert judgment is asked for. How unfortunate that in this country we have plaintiffs’ lawyers and defendants’ lawyers, lawyers who represent only unions and others who represent only management. One looks with nostalgia at the British bar, where barristers will prosecute one day and defend the next.
It may just be that Mr. Stimson is annoyed that his overstretched staff lawyers are opposed by highly trained and motivated elite lawyers working in fancy offices with art work in the corridors and free lunch laid on in sumptuous cafeterias. But it has ever been so; it is the American way. The right to representation does not usually mean representation by the best, brightest and sleekest. That in this case it does is just an irony — one to savor, not deplore.
It is no surprise that firms like Wilmer Hale (which represents both Big Pharma and Tobacco Free Kids), Covington and Burling (which represents both Big Tobacco and Guantanamo detainees), and the other firms on Mr. Stimson’s hit list, are among the most sought-after by law school graduates, and retain the loyalty and enthusiasm of their partners. They offer their lawyers the profession at its best, and help assure that the rule of law is not just a slogan but a satisfying way of life.