Lawyers can learn something from a former journalist turned political adviser.
As the 2008 presidential campaign approached, David Axelrod, who gave up a newspaper career to work in politics, had a handful of options for whom to back. He had been an adviser to five of the early candidates, including the front-runner, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.
He’d also advised Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who, in 2008, was barely three years into his Senate career.
Axelrod had been affiliated with Obama since the early 1990s. Both were living, and crafting political careers, in Chicago.
When decision time came in 2008, he stuck with his fellow-Chicagoan, the barely-known Obama.
Two successful presidential elections later, Axelrod is about to start as inaugural director of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics.
Imagine the back-room gossip if Axelrod had left Obama’s campaign for Clinton’s, then rejoined Obama after Clinton’s primary defeat. Instead of being respected as a through-thick-and-thin loyalist, he might have been dismissed as a slick opportunist.
But Axelrod was smart. He knew that to build a reputation, he had to choose one candidate and stick with him.
Like Axelrod, lawyers should avoid the pingpong practice.
This month’s cover story looks at switch-hitters, attorneys who alternate between plaintiffs and defendants. Unlike attorneys who have changed course and stuck with it – prosecutors to defense attorneys is a common path – the switch-hitters are trial lawyers who readily represent either side, then return to the opponent when the next case comes around.
That is a problem, said Dean Dietrich, former chairman of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Professional Ethics Committee.
“I don’t believe there are different levels of loyalty,” Dietrich said. “Loyalty is a concept that is drafted clearly into the Lawyer’s Oath and the Rules of Professional Conduct. And when you start using information that you’ve acquired from representing a client against that client, you really, in my view, go beyond what is reasonably meant by the concept of loyalty.”
Perceived loyalty is crucial, he said, to a successful attorney-client relationship. And even if the attorneys insist they won’t use insider information against former clients, the perception that they could or might “hurts the profession and our reputation,” Dietrich said.
Committing to representing plaintiffs or defendants should be weighed as seriously as backing one candidate versus another. Respected careers in the law, as in politics, are built on reputation, not versatility.