What kind of message are F. Lee Bailey, Johnnie Cochran Jr., Robert Shapiro and Carl Douglas sending to the future lawyers of America?
Clues can be found across the country in classrooms and student lounges at law schools, where the behavior of O.J. Simpson’s “dream team” of defenders has sparked a lively debate about attorney ethics.
Last week, as Bailey defended himself against charges that he misled Judge Lance Ito, and Cochran and Douglas tried to avoid fines levied on them for failing to disclose a taped interview with a witness, a group of law students tuned in at the University of Montana.
“When it was over, one student turned to me and asked why I bother teaching ethics,” said Patrick Cotter, a professor. “He said that these guys are big successful lawyers, and they get up there and lie, and the judge just sits there and lets them do it.
“I said this is exactly why we have to teach you ethics, because there has never been a time when there was more of a need for ethics in our profession.”
Some law professors blamed the case’s high profile for the lawyers’ behavior.
“The publicity surrounding this case, the high stakes and the amount of money involved … has exaggerated this behavior past any normal level,” said Joan Bohl, a professor at the Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles.
“This is not typical behavior,” Bohl added. “This kind of behavior gets you celebrity clients, that is all. Otherwise it doesn’t work. And that is what I tell my students.”
Bohl said her students were confused by the defense’s behavior, and she frequently fields basic questions of right and wrong.
Ethics is taught as a separate course in many law schools, as it is at Southwestern.
“The students hate the course because they can’t connect it to real life,” she said. “They say nobody does this so why should I? This (trial) just makes that worse.”
California is the only state without a standard code of conduct governing how attorneys must behave.
Thirty-eight states have adopted the American Bar Association’s model rules of conduct. Eleven others have established their own codes, which can lead to fines and other sanctions from state bar associations or state supreme courts.
Questionable ethics have surrounded the Simpson
defense team, starting with news leaks last summer about alleged racism by police Detective Mark Fuhrman and running through opening arguments when Cochran introduced potential witnesses the prosecution had never heard about.
Under California law, both sides in a criminal proceeding are required to disclose all evidence that will be submitted and all witnesses that will be called.
Most of the breaches involving the Simpson defenders have been matters of ethics, not law, and experts say that is not uncommon.
“I think that the legal profession has a real problem with ethics,” Cotter said. “Too many lawyers basically figure that if they don’t break a law that they are being ethical, and that simply is not true.”
Cochran and Douglas went too far when they failed to disclose the existence of a taped interview with one witness, Rosa Lopez. It was only after William Pavelic, a defense investigator, was put under oath, that the existence of the tape was revealed.
That led Ito to fine each of the lawyers $950 for violating the state’s disclosure rules.
Then last week, as Cochran and Douglas tried to get Ito to lift the fines, another ethical flap erupted involving Bailey.
Bailey told Ito in court Tuesday he had spoken with Max Cordoba, a potential defense witness who Bailey said would testify that Fuhrman made racist remarks.
On NBC television that night, Cordoba said he had never spoken with Bailey, which led to an acrimonious exchange Wednesday between Bailey and prosecutor Marcia Clark.
Bailey said there had been a misunderstanding. Clark said Bailey lied to the court.