The Empty Glass

David Plotz at Slate begins by explaining how and why he doesn’t like or trust Stephen Glass.  He then comes out and says so:

So, needless to say, I don’t like Steve. And I don’t trust Steve.

It appears there is only one thing he dislikes and distrusts more than Stephen Glass. Lawyers.

Glass was caught in a scandal in the late 90′s, fabricating stories at The New Republic, then lying about them to cover up his lies. Plotz’s wife, Hannah Rosin, was Glass’ editor, and closest confidante. Not only did she get burnt, but hung out like a fool for not being a very good judge of character.  Glass then compounded the damage in his post hoc rationalization novel, The Fabulist, where he “depicted the Hanna-like character as conniving, sleazy, and disloyal, and the Hanna-like character’s husband as even worse.”

But none of this was offered to show that Glass was undeserving of admission to the bar. To the contrary, Plotz was laying the foundation, proving not merely his lack of pro-Glass bias, but his overt anti-Glass hatred, to demonstrate that his thrust was unchallengeable: The Supreme Court of the State of California was horribly wrong to deny Glass admission upon his moral turpitude.

Even so, today’s California Supreme Court decision denying him admission to the California bar is misguided and cruel, a verdict that embodies what is wrong with American law. The Supreme Court spends 35 smug, self-righteous pages finding him morally unfit to be a lawyer in California. His “turpitude” required him to show overwhelming evidence of rehabilitation, but the court found his apologies self-interested, his confessions incomplete, and his pro bono work insufficient. Lawyers must be utterly devoted to “honesty,” the justices assert—a claim that only lawyers could make about law with a straight face—and Glass isn’t.

This isn’t an argument in favor of Stephen Glass’ worthiness to practice law, but rather the legal profession’s unworthiness to question a man that Plotz calls untrustworthy still.  For a guy who writes for a living, it seems that Plotz ought to have a better grasp of rhetoric.

For many outside the profession, lawyers look pretty damned sleazy.  For many inside too. Some grumble about it privately, while others do so openly and for the discrete purpose of letting the slimebags know that someone is watching.  The fact that they are admitted to practice law, however, is invariably disturbing, but there was nothing in their background or history to suggest they lacked the character to be entrusted with other people’s lives.

That’s a problem with young applicants to the bar; they haven’t had enough of a chance to create a track record before they appear before the Character and Fitness committee, so they can sneak through, only to seize the opportunity later to behave badly.

But Glass wasn’t a kid applicant, but someone who got his chance to blow it, and did so in spectacular form.  Unlike young people who were once addicted to drugs or alcohol, whose bad conduct related to their sickness and, once the addiction was overcome, were good if flawed people underneath, Glass’ conduct went to the deepest heart of who and what we aspire to be as lawyer.  It went to his integrity. This is the core of character, and soul of being a lawyer.

No doubt Plotz would laugh at such a sentence. Lawyer? Integrity? Character? Who the hell do you think you’re kidding?  Watch daytime TV, and see lawyer integrity on display. Check out lawyer websites or videos and you will see characters rather than character. True.

But these aren’t what lawyers aspire to be. These are the errors that slipped through. These are the mistakes that weren’t caught in time. These were once good, well-intended people who, through circumstance or accident, have gone wrong.  And if they go wrong enough, we excise them. Or at least we should, though we don’t do it well or frequently enough.

Glass, on the other hand, came before the Committee with lights blazing and sirens wailing. It’s not that he was categorically excluded, but he stood at the bottom of a huge mountain of his own making.  Is this wrong? Hardly. It is a privilege to be a lawyer, to be deemed worthy of the trust of others. You don’t get to be a lawyer because you paid law school tuition, or because you really, really want to. You have to earn it.

And when you stand before a huge mountain of your moral turpitude, you have to scale it. Not because all lawyers are so wonderful, trustworthy and perfect, but because we don’t need more lawyers who aren’t, and we don’t need to let them enter when we know of the problems up front.  Every person who applies to be a lawyer is not entitled to get in.

Whether Glass is sufficiently rehabilitated so that his utter lack of integrity has rematerialized, like a penis Bobbitized and grown back, is more art than science. I neither have an answer nor particularly care.  He’s not my enemy, and I know nothing more about the guy than anyone else who knows nothing more about the guy. The Cali Supremes say he’s not good enough, and in the absence of any proof to the contrary, I demur.

What cannot be ignored, however, is the Plotz argument that because lawyers are scum to begin with, what’s one more piece of scum in the profession.  Not only does he have his logic backward, but his cynicism knows no bounds. Some might suggest this is a reflection on his own occupation, journalist, where he doesn’t see a lack of integrity as a stumbling block.  Maybe it’s just a manifestation of misery loving company, given how poorly Plotz and his wife fared in the Glass fiasco.

Either way, this isn’t his profession and he neither gets a vote nor has the grasp to criticize the court’s unanimous decision.  To the extent that the legal profession has more than its share of practitioners whose integrity is challenged, the reaction is to do better, improve upon past failings, not give up and let anybody in.

Admitting Stephen Glass to the bar would help the people of California who need lawyers. He has proved that for 10 years. But the Supreme Court and the California Committee of Bar Examiners don’t care about that. They care about telling themselves that their profession is saintlier than it is, and they’re superior to the reformed liar who wants to work with them. But law isn’t holy orders. It’s a job.

We are not journalists, and this is not just a job.  We may not be “saintlier,” but we can damn well try.  Plotz might want to consider trying as well, and maybe then he and his wife wouldn’t have been hung out to dry by Glass in the first place and left to play the fools.

9 comments on “The Empty Glass

  1. D.D.

    A fairly new reader, I always enjoy your writing.

    I lol’d when I read “Some might suggest this is a reflection on his own occupation, journalist, where he doesn’t see a lack of integrity as a stumbling block.”

    You’d done a good job of keeping the high ground until the Meta-Editor let that slip past or where you typing with a smile?

    Best Regards

    1. SHG Post author

      Yeah, it’s a bit on the lower snarky side, but given the tenor of Plotz’s adjectives and analogies, I still have the high ground in comparison.

  2. John Jenkins

    When someone linked that post in Twitter yesterday, I almost lost my mind. I could not believe the gross misunderstanding of who lawyers are and what we do. While we have ethical obligations to be honest with other lawyers, courts and third parties, above all we are called on to be honest with our clients, often when no one else is being honest with them. The truths lawyers have to tell are hard, hard truths sometimes. Stephen Glass proved that he would lie to his employer for merest gain, when the only pressure was to get a good story. His behavior gives no indication that he will not continue to lie to his employers, only now those employers would be clients to whom he owes the highest fiduciary duty where the lies could be destructive, so the CA Supremes were absolutely right to deny him.

    What is most annoying about that article is the abject ignorance of the character and fitness process for lawyers and that putative lawyers are denied all the time for less spectacular lapses than Stephen Glass, it’s just that those denials don’t end up as reported cases involving famous people. It’s almost like his publishing his opinion is vastly more important to him than understanding before he speaks.

  3. Edward Wiest

    I took the time to read the California Supreme Court opinion last night. What struck me (as an attorney who has on occassion represented other lawyers in bar discipline proceedings) was the Court’s holding that the standards for denial of initial admission and discipline following an admitted attorney’s acts of “moral turpitude” are essentially identical. (Slip op. at 25) In this regard, complaints about the “smug, self-righteous” de novo review of Glass’s case should take account of the discussion of how this applicant continued to disclose additional previously unknown, ahem, indiscretions during both an withdrawn application for admission in New York in 2002-04, and in hearings on the California application as recently as 2010 (Slip op. at 28-30).

    Many of us know of cases of attorneys who pled out to allegations of Federal securities fraud, accepted responsibility for their conduct (to the extent required by prosecutors), and consented to disbarment following the felony conviction–then, after living the blameless life required by Bar rules for the period required by law, successfully petitioned for readmission to the Bar. While the California opinion did not distinguish Glass’ case in such terms, it seems to me that the Court’s decision rested more on how the applicant behaved _after_ his misconduct was uncovered rather than the initial acts of “moral turpitude” at TNR in 1995-98. You may not agree with the Court’s ultimate decision to deny admission, but it seems clear the Court acted on the basis of how this applicant lived his entire life (including that portion of his life testifying before New York and California bar authorities) in adjudicating his fitness to practice law–as it was entitled, indeed required, to do.

    1. SHG Post author

      That presupposes that lawyers aren’t inherently prone to acts of moral turpitude, which seems to be the root of Plotz’s cynicism. His “reason” for ridiculing the ruling is that lawyers are scum anyway, so why not add one more. The answer seems self-evident.

  4. John Barleycorn

    Turpitude along with Ratatouille, Marquis de Sade Poems, Braille, Neon Lights, and Pasteurization would make for an excellent of round of Jeopardy categories.

  5. Mike Flynn

    I don’t know whether Plotz’s profession has an institutional means of doing this, but my understanding is that Glass has to all practical purposes been eternally barred from returning to journalism. If that profession has determined that Glass is and will forever be unfit in their field, why should a journalist be so appalled that we in the legal profession have decided similarly?

    1. SHG Post author

      No clue what your understanding is that Glass is “eternally barred” from journalism, but if anybody wants to hire him as a journo, they’re free to do so. Law is a profession, however, and requires admission. Journalism is an occupation, and only requires being hired for a job.

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