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Washington Lawyer

The Super Supers

From Washington Lawyer, January 2010

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator“Many a man’s reputation would not know his character if they met on the street.”

—Elbert Hubbard

Here is our plan. We start up a company called Lawyers Limited. It will identify and designate 30 egomaniacal self-promoters in each of the country’s big cities. Each lawyer will be awarded the Super Super designation. Each lawyer will be given an impressive certificate announcing and confirming his or her achievement. The certificate and the lawyer’s photograph will be placed in a gilt frame, ready for mounting in the Super Super lawyer’s office. The cost is reasonable—just $4,500. Extra copies, $2,500.

Furthermore, the Super Super lawyer’s name will appear in a special insert in the Sunday paper of general circulation in each city where he or she practices. Not only will the Super Super lawyer’s name be included in the special insert, but his or her photograph will appear, along with a description of the lawyer’s career, ghosted by Lawyers Limited. The special insert will be designed to look like a part of the Sunday paper itself rather than the paid-for advertisement it is.

A full front page will cost $50,000; a full back page, $11,000. Interior pages at reduced prices.

A Super Super lawyer will be given reduced rates at any hotel in the world that has the word “Ritz” in its title.

Special arrangements have been made with Cole Porter (he attended law school) for use of a knockoff of his song “You’re the Top,” for whatever purpose the Super Super lawyer chooses:

I’m the top!
I’m the Spy Museum.
I’m the top.
I’m the Coliseum.
I’m the one to see with the Do Re Mi.
I’m Franklin D.
I’m Muhammad Ali.
Yesiree,
I’m the top.

Well, there it is. The law practice has become as competitive as Coca-Cola versus Pepsi-Cola, and Wal-Mart versus Amazon. We have let ourselves be exploited by public relations firms and ad agencies. For a price—a big price—they will manufacture a made-to-order reputation and ship it C.O.D.

Years ago, a lawyer publicized himself by connecting with journalists who, for a tip here or there, would play up the lawyer in the newspapers. There were a few ethical rules against self-promotion techniques. Some people said the big firms did their self-promoting efforts at country clubs and golf courses, and then used their influence to enact ethical rules against advertising.

As early as 1942, Judge Learned Hand declared that:

[P]ublicity is a black art; but it has come to stay, every year adds to its potency and to the finality of its judgments. The hand that rules the press, the radio, the screen and the far-spread magazine, rules the country; whether we like it or not, we must learn to accept it. (Proceedings in Memory of Justice Brandeis, 317 U.S. xv (1942).)

In the 1970s the United States Supreme Court extended the commercial speech doctrine to the law practice. Justice Harry Blackmun said it was anachronistic to assert that lawyers are somehow above “trade.”

I have noticed that doctors post in their waiting rooms certificates, like Super Super lawyers do. The doctor is proclaimed to be a Super doctor. I spoke with a friend of mine who was, for years, the doctor’s doctor here in Washington. He was the person to call (and still gets the call) to get the name of a good orthopedist, or a good cardiologist, or a good general surgeon.

I asked how he knew who was good and who was not so good. He said:

Let’s take an orthopedist. Some have manufactured a reputation, and it is known within the profession. The way I made a determination was speaking with nurses who assisted the orthopedic surgeons in the operating room. They knew the good from the bad. They knew the ones who were gifted and those who were not.

Is self-promotion inherent in the practice of law? I am afraid it is. The Duc de la Rochefoucauld (1613–1680) spent a lifetime studying self-promotion and self-interest. Here are a few words on the topic:

Self-love is the love of one’s self, and of every thing on account of one’s self; it makes men idolize themselves, and would make them tyrants over others if fortune were to give them the means. It never reposes out of itself, and only settles on strange objects, as bees do on flowers, to extract what is useful to it. There is nothing so impetuous as its desires, nothing so secret as its plans, nothing so clever as its conduct….
We cannot sound the depths, nor penetrate the darkness of its abysses. There it is concealed from the keenest eyes, it goes through a thousand turns and changes. There it is often invisible to itself; it conceives, nourishes, and brings up, without being conscious of it, a vast number of loves and hates. Some of these it forms so monstrous, that when brought to light it is unable to recognize them. . . . (Moral Reflections, Sentences and Maxims of Francis, Duc de la Rochefoucauld, (1851).)

Oh, for a few years of nonpromotional, dignified leisure and two large estates to administer.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.