Lawyers need to be of good character when they enter the profession but what does good character look like in lawyers already practising in the profession? To answer this, I will turn to Legally Blonde’s very own, Elle Woods, to demonstrate why I think Daniel Bibb, a Manhattan Assistant District Attorney who purposely lost a case to avoid a wrongful conviction, is an example of good character in the legal profession.
I watched Legally Blonde for the third (okay, thirteenth) time this weekend and something new occurred to me. Elle Woods is the lawyer we could all aspire to be.
For instance, candour is highly valued in the profession. When Elle is asked whether another girl is as pretty as her, she very candidly replies, “she could use some mascara and some serious highlights, but she’s not completely unfortunate looking”.
Elle also has the confidentiality thing down pat. When she is asked to disclose a client’s secret she declares, “I promised her, and I can’t break the bonds of sisterhood”.
What really jumped out at me was Elle’s class valedictorian speech. She said:
On our very first day at Harvard, a very wise Professor quoted Aristotle: "The law is reason free from passion." Well, no offense to Aristotle, but in my three years at Harvard I have come to find that passion is a key ingredient to the study and practice of law – and of life. It is with passion, courage of conviction, and strong sense of self that we take our next steps into the world, remembering that first impressions are not always correct. You must always have faith in people. And most importantly, you must always have faith in yourself.
A lawyer with good character will practice with passion. When I think of lawyering with a passion, Daniel Bibb comes to mind. Elle’s speech can serve as a framework by which we can analyze his choices in order to assess whether he acted with good character.
Taking steps with passion, courage of convictions and a strong sense of self
On the first day of our law school orientation, every speaker told us that above all else we should not lose ourselves in law school. Now we are asked to think about what kind of lawyer we want to be and I can only hope that when faced with a grand dilemma like Daniel Bibb, I too, act with passion, courage of convictions and a strong sense of self.
Passion: As a State representative, Daniel Bibb’s duty was to search for the truth and not to get as many convictions as possible. He took the initiative to find witnesses that the defence attorneys had not found. In situations where there may have been an obvious imbalance between State and defence resources, he passionately served his truth seeking duties by putting justice ahead of other parts of his job description.
Courage of convictions: Mr. Bibb believed so strongly in the innocence of the two men he was prosecuting that he went to his superiors and expressed his concerns. This was both procedurally the right thing to do and it was also very brave. Unfortunately, his efforts were in vain and his superiors insisted that he prosecute the case.
It is exactly this kind of crossroad that tests our courage in our convictions. In the face of immense office pressures, political and otherwise, his belief in the innocence of those two men persevered and he committed to the truth, not just the job.
Strong sense of self: One criticism often raised against Mr. Bibb’s decision is that he could have simply removed himself from the case. His decision to stay on the case suggests a strong sense of self because he knew what was ultimately most important to him. As much as losing his job was a very real fear for him, he could not watch someone else prosecute those two men to a conviction. While it may have been unrealistic to expect he could keep his job, the consequences of abandoning his beliefs would betray his sense of self and ultimately that fear carried the day.
Remembering that first impressions are not always correct
A person of good character will pursue the whole truth and not take first impressions at face value. This requires a level of flexibility and open mindedness to facts that arise even after you think you have got it all figured out. Mr. Bibb obviously had a compelling case because his office was determined to pursue it in court. Nevertheless, he continued to dig for the truth.
A lawyer of good character will push past first impressions and leave no stone unturned. After all, there is a duty to “ask every question, no matter how distasteful”. While this principle is scrutinized, it is a rule advocated by the Law Society and it prevents ugly but relevant truths from slivering away through the cracks.
You must always have faith in people and in yourself
This is where Mr. Bibb runs into some trouble. “People” in this context is a multifaceted group including his office and his client whom he did not have faith in as compared to the defendant whom he evidently had complete faith in. He also did not have faith in the defence attorneys’ capacity to defend their clients and subsequently lacked faith in the justice system overall.
On the one hand, wrongful convictions are regrettably a reality. It is difficult to judge someone for wanting to prevent a wrongful conviction and it is even more difficult to imagine the turmoil of being faced with such a dilemma. It is not unfathomable that a lawyer of good character would passionately protect the innocent to uphold their sense of self.
However, the criminal justice system is believed to bring about the justice it seeks and it should not be in the hands of individual attorneys to compromise the integrity of a criminal trial by being an intentionally poor advocate to their client. Ideally, Mr. Bibb should have fulfilled his duty to zealously represent his client and have faith that the truth would prevail because such is the very foundation of our justice system.
The whole of a person is different from the sum of their parts
Daniel Bibb was passionate about justice and he courageously stood by his convictions and his sense of self. He did not rely on first impressions and sought the truth when it was to his own professional detriment. However, he believed so strongly in the innocence of two men that he was unwilling to put his faith in the justice system and ultimately betrayed his own client instead.
At the beginning of our legal ethics course this semester, we contemplated whether one erroneous decision unequivocally makes for an unethical lawyer. I would suggest to you that it does not. At a molecular level, Daniel Bibb made mistakes but the whole of what he did was the result of his unwavering good character in such extraordinary circumstances.
What would Elle Woods say to Daniel Bibb about his choice to throw the case? When stuck between a rock and a hard place, sometimes you have to bend a certain way in order to snap back with yourself still intact.
 Benjamin Weiser, Lawyer Who Threw a Case is Vindicated Not Punished, online: New York Times <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/05/nyregion/05da.html?_r=0>.
 Elle Wood’s Graduation Address, online: Sweet Speeches <http://www.sweetspeeches.com/s/2536-elle-woods-elle-wood-s-graduation-address#ixzz2NphJWniI>.
Robina Khan is a first year student in the Ottawa University Faculty of Law, Common Law Section