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  • Joseph A. Del Russo, JD

Professor Del Russo Explains: Don't confuse the lawyer with the client.

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

UNFORTUNATELY IN THESE POLARIZED TIMES nuance, reflection, and dispassionate objectivity are quaint ideals. We nod, smile and pay lip service to them as useful. But they’re as relevant as grandma‘s fine china. 


A couple of months ago an attorney who represented former President Trump was fired from his position at a law school simply for representing Trump. And now the twitter mob has driven out very liberal attorney Alex Oh as unfit for the SEC‘s top litigator position. 


Such arbitrariness points to a much more fundamental and dangerous state of affairs than society’s loss of perspective. Mistaking the lawyer for the client. This undermines what it means to be a lawyer and advocate in American jurisprudence. 


An attorney is a mere vessel for which all persons may have equal access and understanding of the law and it’s intricacies. Access and understanding that the average person could not possibly have. It levels the playing field.


What is so maddening is a simple truth— that is; unfettered access to legal counsel is a liberal gift from the constitutional framers and their judicial successors. 


To brand an attorney with the scarlet letter of their clients’ behavior is incompatible with progressive ideals of supporting the marginalized, disenfranchised, and unpopular. 


Distinguishing the attorney from the client is something the twitter mob of righteousness should embrace as consistent with their mission. But a mob has no mission, no logic, and no cognition. It is a runaway train of emotional adrenaline for which anyone can hop aboard. And when good, well meaning and influential people routinely punch their ticket and join the fray because the cause is noble, well-- the future is bleak.


As someone who is on the very edges of the investor class, Alex Oh would not be my choice for SEC, but it would hardly be based upon her work as an attorney in a firm that represented, among its clients, Exxon/Mobile.  I’d be much more interested in her blog posts, academic writings, public/personal choices and pronouncements than her legal advocacy. I’d want to know what SHE thinks, how she looks at the world, not how Exxon/Mobile thinks and how Exxon/Mobile looks at the world.


If we live in a world where attorneys are saddled with the yoke of their clients behavior we will be left with attorneys who only represent the safe, the popular, the uncontroversial, the dominant viewpoints. Necessarily there will be a dearth of quality advocacy. 


It is hard to appreciate, unless you have been through what we have been through, psychologically and intellectually, as lawyers. That is, it’s entirely in our self interest and that of the common good, for lawyers to represent people who do bad things. We represent them not because we endorse evil, but because we value the process. 


A process which is beautifully detached from the litigtion's emotional aspects. So everyone gets a fair shot when they find themselves in a legal predicament. Whether it be a simple contract dispute or the government’s boot is pressed against your throat in a criminal proceeding.


That’s not to say lawyers cannot exclusively represent clients they identify with or to advance a cause they believe in. Of course they can. Those attorneys make that clear and there is much evidence of their legal philosophy and personal viewpoints other than simply looking at their client list. 

Similarly, lawyers can choose not to represent persons whose ideals or behavior they find repugnant. 


But if society and it’s institutions demonize lawyers for the clients they represent, the universe of available competent professional advocates will diminish and we will be left only with marginal advocates, true believers, and a very few bold risk-takers. 


And then we all are diminished.


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