Ethics and the Law: Cool Hand Luke

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“Cool Hand Luke” is a 1967 American prison drama film starring Paul Newman in the title role as Lucas “Luke” Jackson, a prisoner in a Florida prison camp who refuses to submit to the system and observe the established pecking order among prisoners. In a 1940s setting, Luke is arrested and sentenced to prison for two years after vandalizing parking meters. Luke’s resistance to observe the pecking order runs afoul with the prisoners’ leader, Dragline. Luke takes a beating from Dragline and eventually earns his respect and that of the other prisoners. Luke’s sense of humor and independence inspires the other prisoners. After winning a game of poker against Dragline with a hand worth nothing, Luke comments that “sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand,” to which Dragline bestows on him the nickname “Cool Hand Luke.”

After getting the news that his mother passed away, Luke escapes from prison but is eventually recaptured. Luke manages to escape the prison a few more times after that but each time is recaptured and punished. Upon his return, the warden, also referred to as the Captain, would deliver his warning speech to the inmates that began with the line, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Each time, Luke’s punishment entailed digging a grave-sized hole in the camp yard, filling it back in, and then being beaten by the guards. Luke eventually caves in and begs for mercy, causing the prisoners to lose respect for him. On his final attempt to escape, Luke steals a prison dump truck with Dragline. They travel to a church but police eventually catch up to them. Dragline surrenders peacefully but Luke makes a bold move and mimics the Captain’s famous line of “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” He is immediately shot in the neck and dies. His actions restore his reputation among the prisoners.

When you get hired or appointed on a case, remember you are the one the client and family are looking to for saving the day. Failure to communicate is one of the top reasons clients become unhappy and file grievances. Good communication, even if the case has bad results, will save you a lot of misery. Spending nights and weekends worrying about a grievance, writ, or worse can be minimized if you simply talk to your client. Try to find an ally who is related to or who knows your client well who can be trusted. Get a waiver from your client so you can talk to that person. Engage them as your ally so they can spend hours talking about the case with the client. You can then spend your time lawyering and not babysitting. Clients have put their life in your hands and look to you to help them. Make it clear from the beginning that you cannot perform miracles, and do not be overly optimistic. Many lawyers get the check and then never talk to their clients. A short phone call or jail visit can go a long way to ease a client’s fear. Be honest with them. Send letters to the client even if it is to say hello, hope you’re okay, and we are working on your case. Many times clients come in and you ask who their prior lawyer was—and they don’t remember. You want them to remember you because they can send you more business and tell all their friends and neighbors how great you are. Return your phone calls.

COMMUNICATE WITH COURT PERSONNEL. A friendly “hello, how are you doing” goes a long way. Be polite but firm, and don’t let your client see you hugging or laughing with the prosecutor. Remember who brought you to the dance. Being friends with a DA may be great but not in front of a client. If you were accused of crime and hired a lawyer, would you want to see them together in a bar or restaurant or playing baseball together? I don’t think most people would. You are fighting a battle for your client, and the odds are always against you. Percy Foreman worked until the end. The last time I saw him, he was lying on a couch in his office barking orders to his staff. Look and act like a lawyer, carry a file even if you have a magazine in it or a briefcase when you go to court. Reach out for help if you need it on a case. Get involved with TCDLA and HCCLA. Get on the listserve. Many smart people like Michael Mowla will help. ”

COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR TEAM AND KEEP YOUR HOUSE IN ORDER. With all the technology available now, save important emails or keep a pad by your bed so when you wake up at midnight with a good idea you can write it down, and document the content of client calls. If it isn’t written down and documented in your file and with your staff, re-creating your recollection for a grievance or lawsuit is less enjoyable than an IRS audit.

COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR COLLEAGUES. Right now there are several members of this organization who are very ill, in hospitals, rehabs, nursing homes, AA meetings, going through a divorce, or dealing with the loss of a loved one. Reach out to those people and make an offer to help. Many lawyers in Houston have died, and it is comforting to know that members of TCDLA and HCCLA are helping to resolve their cases. No one can get out of here alive, so keep your affairs in order to protect your clients as well as your loved ones left behind. Effective documentation will save you in front of the grievance committee—as well as your estate against a lawsuit after you’re long gone.

COMMUNICATE TO THE BAR WHEN REQUIRED. If a lawyer, be it defense lawyer, prosecutor, or judge, violates the canon of ethics, you are duty bound to report it. Robb Fickman leads the charge in Houston and elsewhere to aid in filing judicial complaints. Like Warren Burnett, he spent a lot of time in West Texas. A friend of mine who rode the rodeo circuit said when you deal with people who have spent time there, you better have your tennis shoes on tight because they are tough people. Burnett and Fickman are in that category. Like Luke Jackson found out, a failure to communicate can be disastrous. Many lawyers find themselves with a writ or sitting in front of a grievance committee, hearing them say, as the Captain did, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

TCDLA
TCDLA
Robert Pelton
Robert Pelton
Robert Pelton is the former President of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association (HCCLA), Associate Director for TCDLA, and Feature Articles Editor of the Voice, as well as serving as editor and assistant editor of Docket Call. Among his many honors, Robert was named by H Texas magazine as one of the top criminal lawyers in Harris County (2004–2010) and one of Houston’s Top Lawyers for the People in criminal law (2004–2010), and he is listed in the Martindale Hubbell Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers. Robert has offices in Abilene and Houston.
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