Bread and Circuses

Yesterday, I watched, with an equal measure of bewilderment and horror, a press conference held by two lawyers, Craig Sonner and Hal Uhrig, in Sanford, Florida. In case you don’t own a television or avoid the Internet, you probably  heard about or saw the media event that unfolded like a giant circus tent. 

According to the New York Times:

That narrative took a bizarre turn on Tuesday when two lawyers for Mr. Zimmerman held a news conference in Sanford, Fla., to say they had withdrawn from the case and had not heard from him since the weekend. The lawyers, Craig Sonner and Hal Uhrig, said that against their advice, their client had reached out to Ms. Corey for a meeting. The special prosecutor had declined to speak with Mr. Zimmerman without his lawyers present. They said Mr. Zimmerman had also contacted the Fox News host Sean Hannity, but would not reveal the substance of the call.

 Scott Greenfield asks rhetorically: 

What gave rise to this compelling need to put on a clean shirt and smile for the camera isn’t clear. Announcing that they no longer represent Zimmerman is a non-event. They could have similarly announced they were not made attorney general.  The suggestion that it was to stop all the reporters from seeking comment could have been better accomplished by telling the inquiring reporters that they were no longer Zimmerman’s lawyers.

But then, apparently they hadn’t told Zimmerman, who had apparently gone off the reservation and decided to take matters into his own hands. Again.

‘Mr. Zimmerman has also started a Web site, therealgeorgezimmerman.com, asking for funds to deal with the “life altering event” that, he wrote, forced him “to leave my home, my school, my employer, my family and ultimately, my entire life.” His lawyers said they had been unaware of Mr. Zimmerman’s plans to create the site.

It’s not that these moves have ended any possibility of representation, as Craig Sonner announced that he was ready to resume his representation if Mr. Zimmerman explained his actions since the weekend and said, “I was wrong.”’

Or maybe Zimmerman isn’t interested in Sonner’s representation? Or maybe Zimmerman doesn’t think he was wrong, though the “wrong” referred to here appears to be not appreciating the importance of his lawyer’s advice and presence.

Greenfield concludes, charitably, that sometimes lawyers are unable to deal with the glare of the media spotlight:

The good news is that tomorrow, the lawyers will go back to living their lives of ordinary desperation, having nothing more than a story to tell of the day when they could call a press conference about nothing and reporters came running.  Some young lawyers will listen and wistfully dream of the day when they will become famous for a moment.  Maybe one or two will realize that these lawyers took a trip through the looking glass.

Many will be harsh in criticizing what Sonner and Uhrig for calling their press conference to announce that they no longer matter.  Don’t be too harsh.  When so many bright lights are pointing at you, it’s hard to know how to handle it.  The best answer, to remember that you’re just a lawyer, that this isn’t about you or your moment to be a shining star, and that your responsibility as a lawyer doesn’t change at all from when you represent the client who interests no reporter, is elusive.

Getting your face on TV or your name in the newspaper (and in the New York Times story, Doug Berman is quoted about the case, a curiosity since his focus is sentencing which has nothing to do with the scenario at this stage but didn’t stop Doug from enjoying an interview or serving as their credible academic of the moment) is supposed to be the primary goal of every lawyer who wants to become important.  How did that work out for Craig Sonner?  Finding oneself on the other side of the looking glass isn’t nearly as cool as they say.

What compels two lawyers to jump head first into the proverbial pool without first checking to see if its filled with water? Nope. That metaphor doesn’t quite capture the point. It’s more like these two lawyers saw their client drowning in the pool and threw him an anchor.

Is it the prospect of 15 minutes of Warholian fame? A potential regular gig as a “legal commentator” on the major cable networks, like CNN or Fox News? Hoping for a tsunami of clients to flood their offices with calls?

As I said on the Twitter:

My colleague, George Wallace had a wittier reply:

Panem et circenses. The trial lawyer is both gladiator and statesmen in the modern Colosseum, seeking neither fame and fortune, nor the crowd’s adulation; simply victory for his client. The public interest and the public’s interest are distinguishable not only by an apostrophe, but by catastrophe. When you’re a lawyer, the client ‘s interests are paramount and the client’s confidences are sacrosanct. Period.

Scott Greenfield sent me an email this morning with the following comment to this post:

I’m not so much charitable because I don’t take seriously the ethical morass Sonner and Uhrig created at their press conference, as that they may well be ethical in the normal course of their practice, but under the peculiar circumstances, have suspended their ethical concerns much like they’ve suspended their representation.

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