When the going gets tough, you don’t want a criminal lawyer. You want a criminal lawyer.”
That’s the advice Breaking Bad character Jesse Pinkman bestows on Walter White as the two stare at the strip mall office of Saul Goodman, a fast-talking lawyer with, at best, questionable ethical standards.
That second-season episode marks the beginning of a long attorney-client relationship for the three characters, one that endures as the show on Sunday enters its final season on AMC.
Set in Albuquerque, N.M., Breaking Bad tells the story of actor Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, an unassuming high school chemistry teacher-turned-methamphetamine cook and drug kingpin, who starts his illegal business after being diagnosed with stage-three lung cancer. Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul, is Walter’s former student, a slacker kid who becomes Walter’s shrewd partner in the meth business.
In the four seasons that we’ve known Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk, we’ve seen him do everything from laundering money to brokering the services of hit men. But amid all of Saul’s questionable (and at times criminal) behavior, does he run afoul of attorney ethics rules? To find out, The National Law Journal spoke with those in the know.
Throughout the series, Walter and Jesse are, at times, partners in crime and, at others, adversaries. Despite their differences, the smart, sleazy and almost endearing Saul continues to represent the duo, regardless whether they’re working together or separately. Does that violate client conflict standards?
“It’s not the actions of the clients, it’s the positions that the lawyer is asked to espouse,” said Thomas Mason, chairman of Zuckerman Spaeder’s legal profession and ethics practice. “A lawyer cannot represent two parties who are adverse to each other in the same matter. He could, theoretically, continue to advise both on how to money launder and do those nasty things — except for the fact that these activities are illegal and unethical — assuming that his representation is not adverse to either client.”
And while Saul hasn’t been questioned by the authorities about involvement in any of the crimes committed by Walter and Jesse, he would be prohibited by attorney-client privilege from revealing any details about their illicit activities.
“Typically speaking, information that has been given to an attorney as a criminal lawyer, any information given to them about crimes that had been committed, is confidential,” said Douglas Stern, a partner at Abrams, Fensterman, Fensterman, Eisman, Formato, Ferrara & Einiger.
When Walter and Jesse begin their business of manufacturing methamphetamine, they turn to Saul to launder the cash coming in (albeit for a large cut). At that point, he’s clearly crossed the ethics line.
“In this scenario, where Saul is the money launderer, he is conspiring with the other two. Now he goes from lawyer to participant,” Stern said. “If he is actively working with the ne’er-do-wells to commit a crime, then he can be a co-conspirator or co-felon.”
As Walter and Jesse’s drug business begins making millions, Saul can no longer launder their cash without raising suspicion. He advises Walter and his wife, Skyler, to purchase a business to serve as a front. Eventually, the Whites buy a car wash that Walter once worked at part-time while he was teaching.
While Saul may only be “advising” his clients that they might want to consider purchasing a business for the purpose of laundering money, he can be considered an accomplice.
“An attorney cannot assist a client in the commission of a crime or a fraud,” Mason said. “A lawyer shall not counsel to assist or engage in conduct that is illegal. You can get prosecuted for it and it’s unethical.”
As the series has progressed, Walter has changed from a straightlaced chemistry teacher to a ruthless meth cook and killer. At first, Walter is tormented by his murders, but eventually loses remorse.
Suppose Saul were to catch wind of one of Walter’s murder plots? Would he be obligated to inform law enforcement if he has direct knowledge that his client intends to commit a crime? According to Mason, it varies depending on the jurisdiction, but in Washington there is no requirement to report such activity.
Saul, despite his actions, has yet to get arrested or, worse, killed. Viewers will have wait and see how it pans out for the character in the final eight episodes. But given the reports that a Saul Goodman spinoff might be in the works, the notorious lawyer could yet survive. •