First, an excuse. I neglected to read Chuck Klosterman’s Ethicist this Sunday, but it wasn’t my fault. Dr. SJ glommed up the magazine to do the crossword puzzle before I had a chance to look at it, and by the time she finished the puzzle, I was busy cooking bacon with my son for the ride back to Cambridge. Priorities, right?
When Judge Kopf posted about a letter from a female law student, gently daring the internets to attack, my omission struck hard. How? How did I miss this bit of ethicalismisticity from Chuck Klosterman. Because he’s The Ethicisit. The New York Times says so, even if I haven’t always deferred to his judgment when it comes to legal matters.
But given the nature of the query, and some of the subjects which have prominently appeared at SJ recently, I cannot leave this alone (scroll down to the second letter, entitled “If it pleases the court . . . “).
I am a young, female law student who represents indigent clients in criminal matters. I have learned (both from professionals at my school and from studies on subliminal biases) that female attorneys are more likely to be taken seriously if they have straight hair and wear makeup, skirts and heels. This is not a norm I want to perpetuate. However, I know that I have an ethical responsibility to represent my clients to the best of my ability. But do I have to conform to gender norms I find oppressive if there is a chance it will help my client? NAME WITHHELD
No brainer, right? Putting aside the question of what a law student is doing representing indigent clients (who may be good for practice by people not yet competent, but hey, isn’t that what the poor are for), there is only one ethical response: the client comes first. Your narcissistic, entitled, slacksoisie self-absorption, or as she says, perpetuating the oppression, loses.
What that means, as far as what she should wear or put on her eyes and lips, is worthy of debate, but the ethics are clear. No, you don’t have to dress like a Barbie Doll, but asserting your “right” to fight gender norms at your client’s expense is off the table.
Judge Kopf, on the other hand, picked up on ol’ Chuck’s response, which begins as usual by his rushing off a cliff:
I would agree that you have an ethical responsibility to represent your clients to the fullest extent of your potential. But there are limits to what you are obligated to do, and this situation falls right on the cusp of that territory.
I wonder how much the Times pays Chuck, because there would be a bit of Schadenfreude if he found himself defended by a public defender not of his choosing who had a gender norm problem. But I digress.
What is more important to you: the representation of your client or your discomfort with antiquated gender norms? Almost all occupations require the mild subjugation of certain personal freedoms. If you believe that dressing in a specific manner would serve your client most effectively, your reasons for not doing so must matter more than the consequences of possibly losing a case for reasons unrelated to actual evidence.
Certainly, “mild subjugation” is better than getting your ass beat in the hallway behind the courtroom. But to suggest that this is “subjugation” at all is to succumb to the fashionable notion that it’s “all about me.” This isn’t subjugation. This is a choice we make when we assume the responsibility for other people’s lives. We wear a uniform. Other nations wear cooler uniforms, some with wigs, but we wear a uniform too.
Antiquated? Perhaps, but there is something about ripped jeans and flip-flops that undermines the gravity of the situation. Why not wear a bathing suit, if that’s what makes you feel good about yourself? After all, isn’t it all about what makes you feel good about yourself?
But there is a more nefarious error in Klosterman’s ethical advice, when he suggests that
your reasons for not doing so must matter more than the consequences of possibly losing a case for reasons unrelated to actual evidence.
That is not an option. That is not an excuse or explanation or rationalization. That, Chuck, is manifestly unethical. No matter how narcissistic and entitled someone may feel, they do not get to act in their own interest at the expense of their clients’. Never. Under no circumstances. This is not a choice available to them.
So dear law student who doesn’t want to perpetuate the oppression of gender norms by putting the interests of your indigent defendants ahead of your own, I offer you this solution. Do document review. You are unfit for anything else.
As for Chuck Klosterman, nice going. You may not have a clue about legal ethics, but you are consistent. And don’t let that fear of an absurdly wrong response to a question of legal ethics cause you to lose any sleep. Judge Kopf is here to straighten it out. Me too, even if I show up late.