The X's in Legal Ethics
Who is Lawyer X?
Lawyer X - Nicola Gobbo is the hotshot criminal defence lawyer who represented significant gangland figures in the early 2000s. Although the mainstream media initially suppressed Gobbo’s identity, the overwhelming public interest resulted in lifting the order in 2018. A result of this revelation has lead to the establishment of a Royal Commission, which as of 2020 May is still ongoing. This bombshell not only rocked Gobbo’s world but it has also shed light on the malpractice, corruption of the Victorian Police Department. It is one of the most significant judicial scandals as of late.
While simultaneously representing her clients, she was also dobbing them in. As a lawyer, she broke legal professional privilege and betrayed who clients who trusted that she would defend them. Acting as a police informant, she liaised with the Victorian Police to help secure many convictions of many of Melbourne’s underworld figures.
In 2020 the case of Lawyer X has been a focus of many class discussions on legal ethics. But it has also attracted the attention of both national and international media. The case has garnered so much speculation and interest that it has warranted its two-part Australian miniseries!
What we can learn from Lawyer X as a law student
As a law student, one of the compulsory courses you’ll take is Ethics.
Throughout your degree, you would have generally focused on the misbehaviour of criminals. However, in the case of Lawyer X, you receive a front-row seat to the sins of legal professionals. AKA what not to do as a future lawyer. For an extremely brief course in legal ethics, here are some principles Lawyer X breached.
Stealing money from the government - NO.
Not declaring that 10K trust transfer - NO NO NO.
Embezzling money - NOT NOW, NOT EVER.
As future practitioners, we must maintain boundaries and have a crystal clear understanding of what is and isn’t allowed as a legal practitioner.
Although the actions of Lawyer X are the result of ego, loneliness, control, losing her father young. What is clear is that Gobbo justified her actions despite there being a very clear this is not allowed attached to it. If anyone knew the law – it was her, the barrister. While some of us may only be barristers, one of you reading this may one day be a barrister or a supreme court judge. You will have to make hard decisions, and the best time to start practising setting boundaries is right now. As students, we need to continue to implement limits. Being upfront about our boundaries and limitations involves saying no to things we know we can’t do. Setting boundaries ensures that our ego’s or personal issues don’t motivate us to disregard our obligation to the administration of justice and our duties to our clients. Practically, this may be saying ‘no’ to a friend who wants to do an individual online quiz together or refusing to represent yourself as a lawyer when you haven’t got that admission letter yet.
Character is key
As future lawyers, we will one day join the legal profession. As a profession, one of the things we provide is public service to the general public. Serving the public imposes a high standard on us as legal professionals, which is not an unreasonable expectation on our character. Although your individuality may feel under threat, the pressure to behave like the perfect lawyer is essential. Since lawyers will be judges as individuals and legal professionals.
You all have seen stories that come out about lawyers who don’t do the right thing – lawyers that live by the code of lying, cheating and stealing to line their pockets. This type of behaviour is a blow to all lawyers and judicial servants alike. Since we are the gatekeepers of justice, the public perception of our action is vital to the perceived fairness in our legal system. Administration to the Court is paramount - and when we as lawyers breach legal and ethical codes, it’s not just a mark on the individual but the entire legal profession as well. So, does this mean we must live as models of society not doing anything wrong?
Not necessarily. However, it does mean that we must try our best to live with integrity. While there is no mandated framework for ‘living with integrity’ one way to look at it is in the words of an American Lawyer Carey Niewhof turned minister Work twice as hard on your character as you do on your competence. ‘As my ethics lecturer noted, a good lawyer is an ethical lawyer. Practically, this could look like you seeking out ways to manage your temper, learn to speak with grace or even managing your time wisely.
The Royal Commission went ham into all aspects of Nicola Gobbo's life.
Even her past relationships. While I’m not saying that your entire relationship life will be one day bared out for the whole of the world to hear, I am going to be that older sister and say be mindful of your behaviour, words and actions. As people, we change and evolve; however, with the rise of technology – sometimes our decisions and actions do not age well and can reflect poorly on us.
The importance of maintaining a private life was never more evident when I sat and listened to the Facebook messages between an accused and his embittered partner. Hearing the hate and vitriol read aloud, it made me pause and tell myself that when I’m communicating online – I’m also leaving a bit of myself behind. After that experience, when I’m about to say something online - I ask myself, would I be proud of myself in 20 years for what I’m about to write? All in all, you’re a smart cookie. However, as someone who errs on the side of caution – remember that the decisions you make now, no matter how small can have ramifications.
The system is flawed
A friend recently uploaded a post about the government with the realisation that the government is human. Although this sounds far fetched, the government functions because of the people in it. I have been pondering this concept, the government is not an abstract concept, but it is made up of living, breathing people. Subsequently, since human beings are flawed, it’s a natural follow on to remember that the government is going to be imperfect.
The system is going to be flawed, and it’s not always going always to get it right. So, how should we deal with this as ‘bright-eyed’ law students?
Being cynical is one option, but I believe the best approach is to go in a balance of realism and optimism. As law students, we want to change the world - however, it can be tough when we realise how flawed the system is. Going in with eyes wide open - being aware of the strengths and flaws of the system - will allow us not to become jaded - which I can tell you - I most definitely don’t want to become.