Just Shut Up: Attorney Edition
Occasionally events demonstrate that my favorite piece of advice to clients — just shut up — is good advice to attorneys as well. Case in point: Ed Genson, until recently one of the lawyers for potty-mouthed soon-to-be-ex-governor Rod Blagojevich. Genson has a record of taking on unpopular clients, which is a good thing — we need competent attorneys to take on hard and widely reviled cases. Genson's problem is that he's looking for the door now but can't keep his mouth shut about why.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich's chief defense attorney announced Friday that he is bailing out of the fraud and bribery case against the governor, strongly hinting that his embattled client refused to listen to his advice.
"I never require a client to do what I say, but I do require them to at least listen," Edward Genson said. "I intend to withdraw as counsel in this case."
Genson told the AP that afternoon that he did not know whether Blagojevich would file a lawsuit to block the trial.
"His action, what he's doing, isn't controlled by me," Genson said. "I'm not privy to it. I should be, but I'm not."
Look, if you make it a habit of taking on high-profile, rich, sophisticated, or politically connected clients, sometimes they're going to ignore your advice and act like dumbasses. I had a client who abruptly decided that the best way to deal with a civil suit by government agency X was to confess to wrongdoing to government agency Y, hoping that agency X would then lose interest and go away. So he did so — without telling me he was going to do it. Clients — particularly clients who see themselves as smarter than everyone else — will do things like that. Should you withdraw from defending them? Sure, if you like. But on your way out the door — just shut up. There's no principled basis to take a shot at the client as you leave. Each state's ethical rules have guidelines for what you can and can't say — and what you must say, if at all, privately to a judge — to be relieved as counsel. Follow those rules, then don't run your mouth.
Genson's error is one of pride and self-indulgence. He's miffed at his client failing to come to heel and heed his awesomeness, and he's embarrassed at the prospect that someone will associate the stupid things his client is doing with him. So he's breaching a few duties as he leaves. When he tells the media that his client is not listening to his advice, and that his client isn't keeping him in the loop, he's effectively revealing the course of attorney-client communications and violating the duty of confidentiality. Plus, he's sending a strong signal to the government that his client is out of control and not heeding legal advice, which will embolden and inform prosecutors. There's frankly no excuse for it.
Ed Genson, shut up.
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