Defense attorney Matt Kaiser faces a tough challenge: convincing busy D.C. attorneys to join a voluntary bar association.
Kaiser, whose firm KaiserDillon often represents lawyers and firms in ethical dilemmas, was sworn in as president of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia on June 6. He also sits on the D.C. Court of Appeals’ Board on Professional Responsibility, which serves as the disciplinary arm the D.C. bar.
NLJ caught up with Kaiser to talk about voluntary associations, legal ethics on Capitol Hill and the president. The interview is edited for clarity and length.
For readers who might not know, what exactly is the bar association of D.C.? It’s not the D.C. bar, right?
The Bar Association of D.C. is the oldest bar association in D.C. We were founded in 1871. A big change happened for the BADC when the D.C. bar was formed in 1972. Up until then, in order to be a lawyer in D.C., you needed to belong to the BADC to have access to law libraries [and] the professional community.
That changed when the D.C. bar was created as a mandatory bar. BADC is a general interest voluntary bar, and one of the things we look at is how do we add value?
If lawyers have to join the mandatory bar, why join a voluntary one?
I started my firm eight years ago as a true solo. I left a good job at Zuckerman Spaeder, where everybody was really nice to me. I had this really cheap, windowless office with bad threadbare carpeting. And it smelled. It smelled like class-D office space.
About a year after that, I got involved with BADC. I’ve met a lot of people through the BADC. They’ve been good relationships. Nice people, kind people, who make you feel better about the legal profession and about being a lawyer.
And work has come out of that, but the primary benefits are that getting involved and being more active makes me feel better about life as a lawyer. What I’ve found through getting active in bar stuff around town is that the more lawyers you bump into, the more it reaffirms the fundamental goodness of the people who are lawyers.
I know that sounds hokey, but it makes me feel better about being a lawyer and I feel sad that not all lawyers have that.
What will BADC do this year under your leadership?
We’re going to have a monthly happy hour open to anyone who wants to come. We have an annual gala, which is Dec. 2 this year. I think it’s an important night for people to come together and to be lawyers together.
Even though that sounds a bit dorky, it feels pretty meaningful when you’re doing it. It’s amazing to me how many people feel cut out from the profession. They don’t know lawyers outside their firm, and they don’t know how to get to know more lawyers.
What I want the BADC to do in the next year is work on solving that, to provide mechanisms for lawyers who may not be active and engaged in a bar association to come in, get to know people, and get more active in this legal community.
The second thing we’re trying to do involves this year’s theme: “The Role of Lawyers in a Constitutional Democracy.” It’s an interesting time for lawyers and the Washington establishment in light of the new administration because on one hand, there have been a whole lot of opportunities for people to challenge government action that didn’t exist in the last administration or the one before it.
In the very worst way, it’s an exciting time to be a lawyer. I think there’s a big conversation that needs to happen about the role of lawyers as this presidency gets going. One of the things the BADC can do that a mandatory bar can’t do is we can talk. We’ve got First Amendment rights. The D.C. bar can’t file an amicus brief in support of a position in a case. We can, so one thing we’re going to do is advocacy.
Another thing we’ll do is programming. The contours of that are still developing because, frankly, the contours of the administration are still developing. As the administration acts and lawyers respond, we anticipate putting together events or panels to discuss what’s happening and what lawyers are doing to help people in this new environment.
You write a column for Above the Law, and recently wrote on white-collar attorneys in the Trump administration. What factors should lawyers consider as they decide whether to wade into White House controversies?
First of all, there is something a little macabre about many kinds of lawyering. You call a lawyer when things are going wrong, and it may be that things are going wrong now for our republic. I’m not so cynical as to think that should be celebrated. The problem with working on a history-making case is that history is often born out of crisis and crises have real negative consequences.
That said, I used to be a federal public defender, and [it] really come down on whether you should represent somebody in an investigation — especially an investigation with possible criminal consequences — in a different way than maybe others would. I just don’t understand why anyone would take the view that someone doesn’t deserve a lawyer.
I think lawyers should represent people who have problems they can help solve. Saying, “I don’t want to represent someone because their political ideology is different than mine,” that strikes me as not what our profession ought to do. The best ideals of the profession are served by representing people who are unpopular.
The bigger concern I have about that is not with anyone except for the president. It may be that this president is the worst client in the history of legal representation. He’s got really good lawyers at the Department of Justice and I don’t know why he wants to make their life harder. I can see any particular lawyer’s reluctance to get involved in that as a client-management issue.
What advice do you have for lawyers who might be in tricky ethical situations, whether it’s in the White House or elsewhere?
Let me first acknowledge an obvious conflict: I represent lawyers and law firms with ethics problems. So it’s easy for me to say that the right answer is always to call someone and hire a lawyer. When lawyers have ethics questions, often the first thing they do is just try to think about it, or walk down the hall and talk to a colleague.
The rules are actually pretty clear, and lawyers should be able to read them for themselves in most circumstances. So the first advice I have is read the rules, and if you haven’t read the rules in a while, reread them.
And then I think it’s important to note the rules establish one set of boundaries for your conduct, but there’s something similar that happens in practice. There’s a course of conduct, you can see that it’s permissible under the rules, but it just feels not good.
What I feel like I’ve seen both in my practice in this small law firm and from seeing other lawyers in situations they’ve been in is that those are the kinds of cases, those are the kinds of clients, where, if it feels just a little bit off at the beginning, even if it’s OK under the rules, those are the cases that tend to break bad. Where it takes a turn and you find yourself in a situation where you’ve got to make difficult decisions under the rules. I think many lawyers have pretty good gut instincts. If they’ve done the due diligence and it still feels weird, that’s a signal that I think lawyers should listen to. That’s a good way to stay out of trouble.