IBA 2023: ‘It is very noble to defend victims but the noblest accomplishment of our profession is to defend the accused’

IBA panel discusses challenges facing legal profession including acting for difficult clients in an increasingly binary era

Former US President Donald Trump speaks to press before the start of civil fraud trials in New York last month Shutterstock

On Wednesday, away from the Palais des Congres, a panel explored the burning ethical questions facing the profession in the grand surroundings of the International Chamber of the Paris Commercial Court in central Paris. 

A wide-ranging discussion chaired by Lalive’s Sandrine Giroud tackled issues including the enormous pressure lawyers can face from their clients, the binary and nuance-free nature of discourse in a social media-driven world, the limits of free speech, the rights of lawyers to take on unpopular clients and even whether we are facing the end of universal rights. 

Panellists included former French ambassador to Denmark, Francois Zimeray of Zimeray & Finelle, Christopher Stephens, senior vice president and group general counsel of the World Bank, Adam Goodman of Dentons and Robert Bernstein of Holland & Knight.

With news breaking that a number of Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign attorneys have pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting false statements in the Georgia election racketeering prosecution, Robert Bernstein said: “They have confessed to perpetuating lies told by Trump in a conspiracy to overturn a free and fair election and it really exemplifies how lawyers are often put under extreme pressure. Imagine a lawyer in that position told to do something illegal by a former and possibly even future president – but fundamentally it is our job as lawyers to push back and hold that line.” 

The World Bank’s Stephens noted the tension between the profession’s role as guardians of process and managing the pressures of doing a good job in a competitive environment: “These are divisive times and we have to ensure that doesn’t cloud our judgement as lawyers. We all get a bit excited and passionate about the causes of our clients but societies crossed a line somewhere with such a divisive politic as we see now. If you see things only as right and wrong, black and white, it is easy to see your opponent as not a good person with bad ideas, but rather simply as a bad person, which is a dangerous road.” 

Zimeray emphasised the threats posed by our era of social media-driven binary thinking: “Are we living in a different era? Yes we are. We have all the means of communication and access to knowledge in the world, but we are in a terrible situation where facts no longer matter and prejudice prevails. The lawyer’s role is to understand nuance and complexity and our time is defined by a desire for simplicity, no matter how impossible. This makes it even harder to defend unpopular clients now. There is too much distrust of lawyers and reality is complex not simple. But sometimes the right thing to do is to defend someone no one wants to defend.” 

The issue of managing people in firms with diverse views on the Israel Hamas war was also discussed in light of the decision by several US firms to rescind job offers, with the panel weighing the limits of free speech and the link between discourse and core competencies as a lawyer. Holland & Knight’s Bernstein said: “There has to be a balance between the right to private conduct and free speech with maintaining an inclusive work environment with acceptable discourse. There is a misconception of what free speech means – people in the US do have the right to say what they want but you are not entitled to private employment, so you are not free from the consequences of what you say. 

“There is also the question regarding if someone’s judgement is so off that they say something extreme on social media, then what does it say about their core competencies? Clients pay us to hire people who can exercise good judgement and I can’t say these people are doing that.”

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