Ethics and the Law: Making Silk Purses - By Robert Pelton

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Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Who says you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? In 1921, a group of chemists proved you can. Their handiwork is on display at MIT and the Smithsonian Institution. As criminal defense lawyers, it is our duty to at least try. It is not impossible. It just takes a little effort, ingenuity, creativity and human compassion.

The expression takes the pessimistic view that it isn’t worth trying to turn something unpleasant or unrefined—such as a client with a drug addiction­—into something valuable—such as a human being deserving of a second chance. Don’t buy it and don’t give up on your clients. Society wants us to throw these people away, but that is not why we became criminal defense lawyers. People are always worth it. Transformation is always possible.

A Criminal Defense Attorney’s Guide:
How to Turn a Sow’s Ear into a Silk Purse

When you first interview a client, ask them for detailed background information by asking them to write out their life history. You will be surprised how many revealing facts you find that may help in trial and at punishment. It is important after all to understand how your client became a defendant in the first place. No one was born a sow’s ear. So how do you transform something so undesirable into something charming? Encourage your “sow’s ears” to start weaving themselves into silk purses as soon as you meet them.

1.  Start with their image: Advise your clients to get a haircut, a clean shave, and remove any visible piercings. They should also make an effort to conceal their tattoos and dress appropriately at all court appearances. First impressions are important.

2.  Other types of public images are worth mentioning, such as online personas. I usually tell my clients to immediately delete their Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, or other social media accounts. (The lawyer should first make sure that the advice does not result or aid the client in committing the additional crime of “Tampering With or Fabricating Physical Evidence” as defined by Tex. Pen. Code 37.09.) If they are unwilling to close their accounts permanently, I advise them to stop using them until all charges have been resolved (unless they need to remove certain negative content). Nothing says “please convict me” like a page full of foul language, obscene photos, or images of marijuana leaves posted by your clients or their friends.

You should also advise your clients to limit what they say, and who they say it to, in emails and texts. As legendary lawyer Richard “Racehorse” Haynes says: the “E” in email stands for “Evidence.” Many a problem has developed because of an email or text.

All blogging should stop as well. Blog posts can be taken out of context, and a few wrong words can result in serious consequences.

3.  Of course your client’s public image isn’t everything, so having them look like a silk purse is not enough. Silk may be a beautiful fabric, but it is also a resilient one, made of substance. Encourage your clients to become men and women of substance as well—if they struggle with addictions, insist they get treatment immediately and urge them to start attending support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

4.  Counsel your clients to get involved in community or church activities. This will not only give them the emotional support they need, but could also provide witnesses who might be willing to help them later on. If your client attends church, speak to his preacher. A letter from a church leader can go a long way.

5.  Advise your client to enroll in some type of higher education or training courses, whether obtaining a GED or attending a university, community college, or vocational trade school.

6.  Lastly, keep in touch. Check on their progress. Many defendants are entering the criminal justice system for the first time and need every bit of guidance you can offer them. Good communication is essential, so be sure to advise them throughout the process.

Ultimately it is up to your clients to take the necessary steps toward self-improvement. They may not listen but as you know, many of them do not have positive role models in their lives and need this commonsense advice from you. It is our job to try to make them seem more palatable. In doing so we may also transform their lives, vastly improving their chances for success. No one said it was easy, but it is possible.

The work of a criminal defense lawyer is a serious undertaking and going it alone can be a scary job. Our new president has organized a very competent group of lawyers to help and continue the goals of TCDLA. The ethics hotline is our way of trying to provide immediate relief to a lawyer facing a crisis or ethical dilemma. Calls continue to pour in with large and small issues from members around the state. The stress of our jobs creates unique problems, and our committee is always here to help. Remember our oath is to our clients. We all know some of them can be very difficult to work with. Many have drug and alcohol addictions and/or emotional or mental health issues. These problems can be mild to severe. But it is possible, and it is in fact, our duty as lawyers to make silk purses out of sow’s ears.

TCDLA Ethics Committee Hotline: 512.646.2734

Robert Pelton, Chairman (Houston)
Jack Zimmermann (Houston)
Robyn Harlin (Houston)
Ray Fuchs (San Antonio)
David Sheppard (Austin)
David Zavoda (Odessa)
Joe Pelton (Abilene)
Greg Velasquez (El Paso)
Joseph Connors (McAllen)
Don Davidson (Bedford)
Doug Barlow (Beaumont)