"The adversarial legal system—in which both sides of a dispute are represented vigorously by attorneys with a vested interest in winning—is at the heart of the American constitutional order. Since time immemorial, law schools have tried to prepare their students to take part in that system. Not so much anymore."
In 2017, the super lawyer David Boies was at a corporate retreat at the Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne, Florida, hosted by his law firm, Boies, Schiller and Flexner. Boies was a liberal legend: He had represented Al Gore in Bush v. Gore, and, in 2013, successfully defended gay marriage in California, in Hollingsworth v. Perry, paving the way for the landmark Supreme Court ruling two years later.
On the last day of the retreat, Boies gave a talk in the hotel ballroom to 100 or so attorneys, according to a lawyer who was present at the event. Afterwards, Boies’s colleagues were invited to ask questions.
Most of the questions were yawners. Then, an associate in her late twenties stood up. She said there were lawyers at the firm who were “uncomfortable” with Boies representing disgraced movie maker Harvey Weinstein, and she wanted to know whether Boies would pay them severance so they could quit and focus on applying for jobs at other firms. Boies, who declined to comment for this article, said no.
That lawyers could be tainted by representing unpopular clients was hardly news. But in times past, lawyers worried about the public—not other lawyers. Defending communists, terrorists, and cop killers had never been a crowd pleaser, but that’s what lawyers had to do sometimes: Defend people who were hated.
When congressional Republicans attacked attorneys for representing Guantanamo detainees, for example, the entire profession rallied around them. The American Civil Liberties Union noted that John Adams took pride in representing British soldiers accused of taking part in the Boston Massacre, calling it “one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered to my country.”
But that’s not how the new associates saw Boies’s choice to represent Weinstein. They thought there were certain people you just did not represent—people so hateful and reprehensible that helping them made you complicit. The partners, the old-timers—pretty much everyone over 50—found this unbelievable. That wasn’t the law as they had known it. That wasn’t America.
“The idea that guilty people shouldn’t get lawyers attacks the legal system at its root,” Andrew Koppelman, a prominent liberal scholar of constitutional law at Northwestern University, said. “People will ask: ‘How can you represent someone who’s guilty?’ The answer is that a society where accused people don’t get a defense as a matter of course is a society you don’t want to live in. It’s a totalitarian nightmare.”