Lawyer, n. One skilled in the circumvention of the law. – Ambrose Bierce.
Two recent suicides of fellow members of the bar have gotten ELV to thinking….and no, it didn’t hurt. Those deaths — of attorneys David Amesbury and Nancy Quon — were the fourth such deaths related to, or springing from, an ongoing HOA scandal that involved lawyers (like Quon and Amesbury) soliciting homeowner’s associations as clients, packing the boards of those association with “owners” whom they controlled, and then funneling construction defect work/repairs (and the attendant kickbacks) to contractors they were cozy with.
It was all very convoluted and corrupt, and a prime example of how the profession has been brought low by its own members — those in craven search of wealth, especially, who develop an ethical blind spot as soon as soon as the money gets too big.
Since we doubt you’re going to read much inside scoop from attorneys about this scandal — beyond the usual “these were just a few bad apples” bloviating by esteemed members of the bar — ELV thought he’d go off the reservation for a few minutes and share with you his thoughts (and a few facts) about the subject. For a good overview, we suggest reading the columns of John L. Smith on the subject, or listen to his interview on KNPR yesterday.
First, a little history. Yours truly knew Nancy Quon, through mutual friends and as a colleague. We met her twenty years ago, many years before she became a lawyer. Was she the brightest bulb in the box? Hardly, but she was very ambitious — someone who saw the law as a ticket out of her middle-class existence and into the good life. Whatever she lacked in brilliance she made up for with hard work and, to these eyes, a single-minded determination to get ahead using the law as a springboard.
Quon approached us not once, but twice out of law school, to go into partnership with her cultivating the (as she saw it) under-served area of homeowner association representation — once with a big, controversial law firm out of Southern California, and then after she broke free of them after a bitter lawsuit (a lawsuit we predicted when we declined the invitation).
The second time we were solicited by Quon, she was independent and was planning to take the HOA world by storm with all kinds of marketing ideas and vertical integration of services — including partnering up with contractors to do the repairs once those multimillion dollar construction defect settlements started pouring in. None of it passed the smell test, so (again) we politely declined.
Why were her plans so odoriferous? Because they were all about money and nothing else. And it might surprise you to know that lawyers are not supposed to be all about money.
The law, you see, is a profession. One of only three true professions. Along with the clergy and medicine, it is supposed to be about a higher calling other than just making a buck. Lawyers, like pastors and rabbis and priests and doctors are supposed to be comfortable (you can’t minister to your clients, patients or flock if you’re scrounging for a living), but money is not supposed to the goal.
The goal should be to provide objective counsel and service to others.
Too often, in our thirty-five years as an attorney, we’ve seen this goal honored in the breach. And it gets abandoned completely when the truly big bucks get dangled in front of some who should know better.
To our way of thinking, that’s the real culprit. If bankers, dry cleaners and plumbers want to devote themselves solely to accumulating wealth, that’s their prerogative. But lawyers (attorneys especially*) are supposed to be the backstops to such behavior when it crosses the line of legality or fairness. Whether it’s injury lawyers who get feeder operations going with”consultants” or dimwits who couldn’t see the ethical forest beyond the green trees sprouting in their checkbooks, the greed gland is a powerful fertilizer. When it becomes your only source of nourishment, you starve yourself, your profession and the society that cultivated you.
We find it hard to feel sorry for any of these folks, even in their deaths. They were supposed to learn these things in law school. We certainly did. They were supposed to have a moral compass trained on serving the client’s interest, not their own. But it seems like with everything in the world these days, including dignity, the law as a profession is now little more than a commodity — to be used and abused for the sake of getting ahead. Nancy Quon and David Amesbury weren’t suffering from gambling addiction or substance abuse. They weren’t going through extreme personal trauma that got the better of them. They just wanted to be rich.
Attorneys aren’t supposed to be rich. Someone should’ve told them.
* A lawyer is anyone with a law degree.** An attorney is one licensed to practiced before the courts of a state. You can be a lawyer without being an attorney, but not the other way around.
** ELV graduated with a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Louisville in 1977. He is licensed to practice in Kentucky, Connecticut, New York and Nevada. Go Cards!