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I have seen a bunch of comments and some diaries here today criticizing our new Attorney General, Eric Holder, on the grounds that he spent some time at Covington & Burling, one of our nation’s top law firms.

The buzz of the criticism seems to be that it was somehow evil of Mr. Holder to have worked for a big, corporate law firm.  As one commentator noted:

Do we really want the guy who defends Jeff Skilling (i.e., white collar defense) as attorney general?

To set the record straight, Mr. Holder never represented Jeff Skilling.  That representation was done by Daniel Petrocelli, a partner in the wonderful firm of O’Melveny & Myers (another of our nation‘s best law firms), who also successfully represented the family of Ron Goldman in their suit against O.J. Simpson.

But all of this is beside the point.

I am angry about the bashing of corporate law firms tonight because (a) I spent a part of my career at one, (b) no lawyers should ever be bashed for the clients they represent and (c) if it were not for big corporate law firms, a lot of the justice that is still meted out in this country (to the extent it is meted out at all) would never have gotten done without them.

A bit of background.  I graduated at the top of my class from a fancy New England private liberal arts college.  I went to work for a newspaper.  A few years later, I decided I wanted to go to law school (OK, I was pushed to this decision by my feminist Mom who said that I had to go to law school, business school or medical school -- my pick -- and that she would pay for it from her teaching salary because she believed all women should have a professional degree so that they could support themselves; thank you, again, Mom).  I was lucky enough to get into the University of Virginia, and I graduated some 20 years ago.

Then I got a great job at a fancy law firm in Washington, D.C.  And this is what I know.

My D.C. law firm, like many big, fancy D.C. law firms, believed in social justice and doing the right thing.  Its partners believed in doing right.  

The very first case to which I was assigned was an amicus brief (friend of the court) on behalf of Soldier of Fortune magazine.  Do I like Soldier of Fortune magazine?  Are you kidding?  My mailman used to laugh because, as he said, I was his only route-delivery who got Mother Jones, The Nation, The New Yorker and (because they had sent it to me as a thank you) Soldier of Fortune.  But did they deserve representation?  Oh, yes.

The case was brought by the family of a murder victim.  The murderer had been "solicited" (so they said) by an "ad" in Soldier of Fortune.  They were suing for wrongful death, and the damages they were seeking were in excess of the total worth of the magazine.

Here was the rub: Had they been successful, all print publications would have been responsible for all consequences of any classified advertisement they ran, however innocuous.  The result would have meant serious economic harm, if not bankruptcy, for many publications.

So, yes, it was Soldier of Fortune magazine, and yes, because of the principle involved, it deserved our very best defense.

I have also represented small environmental magazines against the American Petroleum Institute, which took on one of my clients in a nonsense libel lawsuit for the sole purpose of silencing it.  I was lucky, then, to work for a firm that had enough corporate dollars to allow me the time I needed (all spent pro bono) to beat the API.  That cost my firm a bunch of money: Let’s not forget the costs of investigators, depositions, transcripts and all the rest.  Someone pays for these; and in the case of pro bono litigation, it’s usually the firm.

Between 1990-1993, I represented a client whose case went all the way to the Supreme Court.  It was a First Amendment case, and one I cared about passionately.  For much of the last year of that case, I did it pro bono.  My firm ate the costs -- which eventually totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars (in attorneys’ fees, transcripts, travel, etc.) without a whimper of complaint.  We didn’t win; but we put in a hard battle.  Without the support of my firm, there would never have been any battle to be fought.

Many of the most prominent District of Columbia law firms expend millions of dollars (in foregone attorneys’ fees and in expenses) to battle evil.  They dispatch their most well-regarded associates and partners to help those on death row, the indigent, animal rights’ groups, civil rights’ groups, womens’ rights groups -- all those who need a voice.

If it were not for the expensive D.C. firms who foot the bills for important litigation on behalf of those who could not otherwise afford representation, there would have been many more wrongful executions, many more people deprived of their civil liberties, many more people in despair.

And so, in answer to D.C.-law firm bashers today, I’d like to say two things:

My Code of Ethics requires me to do my best for all my clients:

The duty of a lawyer, both to his client and to the legal system, is to represent his client zealously within the bounds of the law, which includes Disciplinary Rules and enforceable professional regulations. The professional responsibility of a lawyer derives from his membership in a profession which has the duty of assisting members of the public to secure and protect available legal rights and benefits. In our government of laws and not of men, each member of our society is entitled to have his conduct judged and regulated in accordance with the law; to seek any lawful objective through legally permissible means; and to present for adjudication any lawful claim, issue, or defense.

And this:

I, like almost all the lawyers I know, will always do my best to help my fellow citizens, in any way I can; that is what we do.

I have applied to work in this new Administration; it would be my honor to serve in the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder.

Originally posted to noweasels on Tue Nov 18, 2008 at 10:38 PM PST.

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