Why Lawyers’ Ethics is NOT a Contradiction: Female Lawyers and Perceptions of the Legal Profession

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding female lawyers lately. First, there was the rumour that Hillary Clinton mocked the twelve year old rape victim of a man she was charged with defending during her days working at a legal aid clinic in 1975. The second was with the announcement that Jian Ghomeshi’s attorney Marie Henein was planning on speaking at Canadian schools.

Female attorneys are judged more harshly than male lawyers for the cases they take, and it has to do with the perception of why they got into the profession. Male lawyers are usually believed to have gone into law for money and power, whereas female lawyers are perceived to have gone into it to save the world and protect the innocent.

It should be noted that the rumour that Clinton mocked a rape victim turned out to be just that, a rumour. The story was circulated by racist misogynist now president-elect and right wing groups supporting him. When fact checking organizations like Politifact looked into it, it was revealed that recording was of Hillary Clinton mocking the Arkansas crime lab for accidentally destroying DNA evidence linking her client to the crime and NOT the victim. For many people it does not matter who she was mocking because like Henein, she is a woman who defended a rapist.

Women who defend rapists are vilified as being traitors to their sex. It does not make sense to many that a woman could defend someone who violated another, despite the fact that male lawyers defend rapists all the time regardless of whether the victims were male or female. What people seem to forget is that female lawyers are bound by the same rules as their male counterparts so it’s high time we looked at what those rules actually are.

The rules governing the behavior of lawyers vary from province to province and country to country, but in liberal democracies they are all based on the same principles of rule of law and an accused’s right to a fair trial and defense.

In Quebec, lawyers are bound by many laws including An Act Respecting the Barreau du Quebec, the Code of Professions, and the Code of Professional Conduct of Lawyers which they have to study as part of their preparation for the Bar exam. The Code of Professional Conduct sets out some of the basic rules of practice for lawyers towards their clients, the public, and with regards to the administration of justice. Here are some of the rules lawyers have to follow as per the latter Code.

The Code defines a lawyer’s client as any person or organization that a lawyer provides or undertakes to provide professional services for.

Lawyers are bound by law to act for their clients with integrity, competence, loyalty, confidentiality, impartiality, diligence, and prudence.

Attorneys cannot engage in their professional activities if they are in a state or under conditions that would compromise the quality of their services. That means that if, for example, an attorney knows he makes bad decisions after a few drinks, he is legally bound not to act as an attorney after having those drinks.

A lawyer has to act in their client’s best interests at all times. In doing so, they must act in compliance with the rule of law and in a way as to establish and maintain a relationship of trust with the client.

Lawyers also have to respect a client or prospective client’s right to choose their counsel, and cannot provoke disputes in order to get their business.

Most importantly to the perception of attorneys, it should be noted that lawyers are allowed to agree to act for a client no matter what their opinion on said client’s guilt or liability is. One could argue that a lawyer’s decision to defend a client whose innocence they doubt is what makes the difference between the bloodsuckers and the heroes, but it’s not if you consider that our legal system is based on the notion of innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and it’s certainly not if you believe everyone has the right to the best defense possible.

It should also be noted that there are many things lawyers are not allowed to do.

Lawyers in Quebec have to avoid all methods and attitudes that would give the profession “a profit-seeking character” by making it look like they became an attorney just to get rich.

Though lawyers have to support and respect the rule of law, they are allowed to criticize and contest legal provisions or their interpretations and applications for a good reason. They are not allowed to help, advise, encourage, or facilitate their clients to engage in behavior they know or SHOULD know is unlawful or fraudulent. Lawyers are also forbidden from concealing or not disclosing what the law obliges them to disclose.

In light of all the controversial cases before the courts, people should not take the silence of a lawyer as a sign of their client’s guilt. The law says that lawyers in Quebec are not allowed to make public statements or communicate information to the media about a matter that is pending before the courts “if the lawyer knows or should know that the information or statements could adversely affect a tribunal’s authority or prejudice a party’s right to a fair trial or hearing.”

The perception of lawyers in our society ranges from bloodsucker to hero and there are many good examples that justify both sets of beliefs. Regardless of what you think of the legal profession, we owe it to our society not to use the a person’s gender identity as the gauge whether a lawyer is acting in the greater good or selling it out for money.

At the end of the day what matters is whether they offered their clients the best possible legal representation while respecting and obeying the very laws they studied.

* Featured image: Courtroom sketch of Marie Henein defending Jian Ghomeshi

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