The recent violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, has raised the national consciousness about racism in the U.S., prompting many business leaders to respond and some to recall Martin Niemoller’s famous quote about the importance of speaking out for others.
Few professions are as dedicated to speaking out on behalf of others as attorneys.
We spoke to four prominent South Florida lawyers about whether those in the profession have a duty to speak out on either side of controversial issues like the Charlottesville rally or President Donald Trump’s comment that all sides are to blame in the subsequent attack. One is an ethics lawyer; one is a partner at one of Florida’s largest black minority owned firm; and two are lawyers who have represented terror victims, including one who escaped WWII Warsaw, Poland.
They don’t all see the matter the same way.
Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Andrew Hall, founder of Hall, Lamb, Hall & Leto in Miami. Born in the middle of WWII in Warsaw, Poland, Hall was just 2 when his father was arrested in 1946. Hall escaped Poland with his brother and was marched with a group of war orphans from camp to camp trying to get to Palestine. The brothers reunited with family months later in Munich. In the U.S. he has tried cases rising from some of the nation’s most significant historical events and has represented terrorism victims, including the families of service people on the USS Cole.
“You need to speak up immediately when there is an issue. Even if it’s only four people around a dinner table. “
“In terms of speaking out on major public issues, large firms do not want their lawyers speaking because they have to deal with all sorts of conflicting issues. At smaller firms it’s always an individual-by-individual decision.”
“Lawyers spend an awful lot of time learning about the rule of law, and we develop an understanding of it. If we don’t speak out ethically and publicly on issues that affect public safety and public welfare, who else will? We have a duty to do it.”
Brian Tannebaum, a Miami ethics lawyer who represents lawyers in discipline and sanction issues.
“I don’t think lawyers have an ethical or legal duty to speak, but I think lawyers are in a unique position to talk about the law. Lawyers have an opportunity to educate people who may not understand how court systems work, or how judges operate or how the constitution applies. So I think lawyers are in a good position to explain things when people are making comments that may not be correct.
“From a business perspective I’m not concerned about putting myself out there with my opinion because it might affect my business. There are plenty of lawyers out there that are, frankly, scared to say anything because they may lose business.
It’s more important to me to be able to speak my mind than to have another case or to have another client.
Read McCaffrey, senior counsel at Rasco Klock Perez Nieto in Coral Gables, is known for having represented terrorism victims of Pan Am Flight 103 in lawsuits.
“I don’t believe that persons in my profession have any obligation to speak out on the Charlottesville issue or any other national issue. I can’t imagine why anyone would think that.
“If a reporter were to call a lawyer for a specific issue because they happen to practice in that area, they still don’t have any obligation to give an opinion.
“There are a great many people out there whose opinions really don’t amount to a hill of beans. … They think that volunteering their time puts them in a better light to attract more business. I’m a bit leery of people who say by the way, you haven’t asked me but let me give you my opinion on this. Who cares?
Marlon Hill, a corporate lawyer practicing in Miami who had his own small firm for 15 years before merging with Hamiliton, Miller & Birthisel three years ago to become one of the largest black minority owned firms in Florida.
“Every CEO, managing partner or head of an organization has a duty to set a moral compass for an organization irrespective of the mission it has. We look to our leaders for that type of guidance to how we should be conducting ourselves, and how we should be treating each other as co-workers or how we serve consitituents. There are certain common resonating values that should always be employed and used—respect, courtesy—that should be commonplace. As a society we tend to look the other way when issues like this confront us. We can’t continue to do this. Whether you are looking at the big picture of leading and managing a country, or you are looking at leading and managing a law firm, these issues will continue to confront us if there is no moral compass.
“Trump’s comments were untimely. Even though they may have some broader discourse, the scope and the specifics of the weekend just didn’t warrant having that broader scope discussion right now.
“Without a moral compass in how you are leading, you lose credibility for people to rally around other things that you may care about that may be good for the broader society. It’s an extraordinary teaching moment for the nation and our profession.”