A Trial Attorney Analyzes Better Call Saul Ethical Violations

Few fictional attorneys are more infamous than Saul Goodman. The Better Call Saul lawyer, Cinnabon employee, and scam artist has a loose moral compass. As we’ve seen on Better Call  Saul and Breaking Bad, ethical violations are more strategy than deterrent. Played by actor Bob Odenkirk, the character has earned every bit of the nickname “Slippin’ Jimmy.” To quote Jesse Pinkman, “You don’t want a criminal lawyer… you want a criminal lawyer.”

Many of the best scenes on Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad involve serious ethical violations, both basic and complex. Watching Odenkirk work a scam is addictive viewing, but lawyer misconduct is more than a punchline and is taken seriously in the legal profession.

A Philadelphia trial attorney answered questions about Better Call Saul. He asked to remain anonymous. Saul Goodman is so corrupt that mere commentary on his morals is a slippery slope. The attorney cited notable examples of legal and ethics issues, including a Florida Man (of course). He also discussed the actions of the more straitlaced attorneys of Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill.

 

The primary firm in Better Call Saul (Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill) has a complex corporate culture. Jimmy McGill aside, do you find Chuck McGill, Kim Wexler, and Howard Hamlin typically follow ethical guidelines?

Yes.  The thing about these guidelines is that they are designed to ensure honesty with the court, decorum among attorneys, and vigorous representation of the client.  It is quite possible for an attorney to be mentally unstable (like Chuck), obnoxious (like Howard), or even a genuinely bad person (like Chuck), but still have his or her professional ethics be above reproach.

The rules are there for a reason, and there are a lot of ways to follow them while still running a case how you see fit.  For most attorneys, it is not just the rules that dictate their behavior, but also their concern for the professional reputation.  Legal communities are surprisingly small, and word gets around quicker than you might think.

That is why, in my opinion, Chuck was always so hard on Jimmy.  He viewed Jimmy as a huckster, an ambulance chaser, and someone whose conduct would eventually reflect poorly on the firm.  I hated how Chuck made sure Jimmy was not hired at Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill, even after bringing them a huge class action lawsuit on a silver platter.  But for Chuck, and for many attorneys, a professional reputation is among your most valued assets.  While I never agreed with how Chuck treated Jimmy, just like there are surely some “Saul Goodmans” out there, there are more than a few “Chuck McGills” as well.

 

What are some of the ramifications that ethical violations (either minor or major) can have on criminal and civil cases?

Like anything, it varies.  Small violations can result in anything from a reprimand to a fine.  But as the offenses get more serious, so do the consequences.

For instance, in one case I found, an attorney was brought before a bar association for a disciplinary proceeding.  His underlying action, whatever it was, would have gotten him some form of punishment.  But his conduct during the hearing earned him a healthy increase in punishment.  As the disciplinary board explained “[Person X] has shown indifference to his misconduct while exhibiting disregard and disrespect for these proceedings.  Respondent refused to testify and refused to call any witnesses. . . . Respondent referred to these proceedings as a ‘mockery’ and a ‘kangaroo court.’”  As a result, his license to practice law was suspended.

Legal Ethics Ruling

In another case, after having been found guilty of stealing money from a client, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered an attorney to provide potential clients with a letter that began “I am a crook.  I am a cheat.  I am a thief. I am a liar.”

Wisconsin Supreme Court Ruling

But my favorite example comes out of Florida (where else?).  An attorney told clients that “based on medical necessity” they could possess, use, and grow federally unlawful marijuana on their property.  For $799 he put them in touch with a medical professional who would give them a letter of “medical necessity,” and then his clients “were provided with a ‘GROW SIGN’ to be posted at their residence which announced that medical marijuana cultivation was underway.” The problem? No such law existed in Florida at the time, the “medical professional” was not actually a doctor but the lawyer’s friend, and the “grow sign” was simply printed off of Microsoft Word.  The lawyer thought it was an easy way to make $800.  But those signs let police know where illegal activity was taking place—the clients were arrested and charged with crimes (of course), and the attorney was disbarred.

 

Saul Goodman concocts crazy scams to get favorable decisions for his clients. What are some of the most egregious ethical violations on Better Call Saul?

Two things jump out in my mind.  The first is from the second season, when Saul sneaks onto a bus full of residents from the Sandpiper retirement community and tries to sign them up as clients.  The second is what eventually sent his brother into a downward spiral: when Saul changes the address on zoning paperwork for a client of Chuck’s, which embarrasses his brother in front of the administrative agency, and results in Chuck’s client to firing Hamlin, Hamlin, & McGill in favor of Saul’s girlfriend Kim’s new solo practice.

As to the first issue, let’s start with the law: the ABA Model Rules of Professional conduct provide that “A lawyer shall not solicit professional employment by live person-to-person contact when a significant motive for the lawyer’s doing so is the lawyer’s or law firm’s pecuniary gain,” and the rule defines a solicitation as “a communication initiated by or on behalf of a lawyer or law firm that is directed to a specific person the lawyer knows or reasonably should know needs legal services in a particular matter.”  ABA Model Rule 7.3.

With that background, go back and watch the beginning of Season 2, Episode 3.  A bus driving residents of the Sandpiper Retirement Community to an off-campus lunch “breaks down.”  Saul hands the driver some money and walks onto the bus.  Now, had he begun speaking with all the residents, telling them who he was and asking for their business?  A clear violation of Rule 7.3.  But instead, Saul seeks out a woman on the bus who already asked for him to represent her against Sandpiper.  Then he “explains” the case to the woman in a way that others on the bus can hear (which could arguably violate attorney-client privilege, but that is another matter).  And what do you know? They sign up with him too!  This one is fun.  Saul is definitely tap dancing on the head of a pin—he goes right up to the line, but does not quite cross it.  Too close for most lawyers, sure, but there are definitely some out there who might try the Saul Goodman tactic when needed.

Turning to the second example, we can again begin with the law: “A lawyer shall not knowingly “make a false statement of fact or law to a tribunal or fail to correct a false statement of material fact or law” and “If a lawyer, the lawyer’s client, or a witness called by the lawyer, has offered material evidence and the lawyer comes to know of its falsity, the lawyer shall take reasonable remedial measures.”  ABA Model Rule 3.3.  In other words, lawyers cannot lie to a judge or administrative agency, and if they find out someone has lied, they need to correct the record.

Remember what Saul did to Chuck?  While Chuck was asleep, Saul snuck into his home, copied his client files changed the address on the files, then put the false documents back in Chuck’s home.  Chuck built his client’s case on the falsified documents – the key error was the incorrect address for a piece of property the client wanted.  The day of the hearing, Chuck screwed up the address in his representations to the agency, and his client’s application was denied.

Saul, obviously, broke rules left and right.  We know he was guilty.  But what makes his conduct so interesting is the impact it had on his girlfriend, Kim Wexler.  If Kim came to believe that Saul had tampered with the documents, she was under an ethical obligation to notify her client and notify the tribunal.  If she does, she would probably lose the client, and her reputation would certainly be hurt.  If she does not, then she has violated Rule 3.3 as well, and could find herself fined, her bar license suspended, or worse.  Saul’s attempt to “help” her actually could have cost Kim her career.

Advertisements

Comments

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: