Ethics and the Law: In God We Trust—All Others Cash

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Many stores and service businesses have signs that read “In God We Trust—All Others Cash.” This was a common phrase used by merchants in the early decades of the 20th century. It was the title of a book written in 1966. Growing up in Abilene, which had many small businesses, I often saw this sign in the window and by the cash register. These business owners had been the victims of bad checks, people who refused to pay their bill, phony money orders, cashier’s checks, and other deceptive ways of not paying their bill for goods or services. There were always people who wanted to run a tab, write a post-dated check, or tell my Dad, who had an auto repair shop, “I will pay you on Friday after I get paid.” Some must have forgot about Friday because one wall was lined with post-dated checks, hot checks, IOU statements, returned mail, and bills which were going to be “Paid on Friday.”

When lawyers sign on to a case and then do not get paid, they have a real problem. The client is going to have a million excuses for not paying. From an ethical standpoint, the lawyer must ask himself: Should I withdraw? Then the case is brought to the attention of the judge, and that will not be good for the client already accused of a crime. Or the lawyer can ask himself: Should I stay on the case and work for free? Many times lawyers do this because when they withdraw it is amazing how fast they fall from the good graces of the client and trigger an unfounded grievance. We receive many calls on the ethics hotline dealing with this issue.

Unless you are independently wealthy, you may want to consider doing what worked for Percy Foreman and Racehorse Haynes. Both made statements that one of the hardest things about being a criminal defense lawyer was getting paid. Both were very good at getting paid. My hero, Racehorse, has a closet filled with ostrich-skin boots and a Rolls Royce in the driveway. At the time of Percy’s death, several million dollars’ worth of bearer bonds were found in a coat hanging in the closet of the hotel room he kept in downtown Houston.

Within a few months of moving to Houston I attended a social function for a judicial candidate where Percy was the guest speaker. He warned a group of us who were law students that if we were entering the profession with the intent of making money, we were barking up the wrong tree. He said if we concentrated on doing a good job for our future clients, we would be rewarded for our work. Percy said that part of his clients’ punishment was paying his fee. Percy would take jewelry, appliances, cars, real estate, and various and assorted sundry for his fee. One of the last times Percy spoke in public before he went to lawyer heaven he said, “I am worth billions, but all I have is a few lousy million.”

When taking property in lieu of money, be wary… and make sure the property is not stolen, does not belong to another family member, is paid for, and is free of liens. At the time, getting a condo on Lake Conroe sounded like a great idea to me until I realized the maintenance fees were several hundred dollars a month. Wouldn’t you know, the client forgot to tell me that the fees were about two years past due. The condo was finally sold for enough to pay the maintenance fees, which resulted in no fee for me.

The practice of law has changed greatly since the days of Percy Foreman. Back then, there was no advertising. You would not see lawyers on television or the internet jumping on cars, crushing cars, or bragging about how many cases they had won or for how much money they had settled a case. The Yellow Pages used to be filled with full-page ads touting the skills of the advertising lawyer. Now techno-geeks extract big money from lawyers with claims of bigger and better websites and top-ten Google search results. Crooked outfits solicit lawyers to be published as part of the “top 10 lawyers in the state.” All it takes is a check. Supposedly this group is the subject of a state bar investigation. Bobby Mims has called it a hoax and so have many others. There is apparently no peer review. Lawyer Mims agrees with me that the best source of business is lawyer referral or past client referral.

Ethical rules were made for a reason. In a recent state bar video about Barratry, which can be found on the state bar website, the second speaker in the program nails the essence of Barratry on the head—CHEATERS. Cheaters are people who place misleading ads and hire runners to solicit cases. Penal code sections 38.12, and 38.01 discuss Barratry and the proof necessary for convictions. Rule 8.04 of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct further discuss these issues.

Get your client ethically, not with promises, runners, bribes, deals with bail bond companies, or other unethical means. No case, no client, and no amount of money is worth losing your profession, your dignity, and your freedom. Get your agreement in writing, and send a letter of acknowledgment of the agreement. Look at past issues of the Voice online to get examples of acceptable employment contracts.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. What sounds like a good deal today is a nightmare tomorrow. Lawyers have to eat too and take care of families, house payments, car payments, insurance payments, and many other things, maybe even a vacation if they are lucky. All lawyers worked long and hard to get through school. They do not send out mail-order law degrees. Remember this when the client wants to pay $100 a month. Unless you are independently wealthy, you must be paid. Never forget: In God We Trust—All Others Cash.

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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