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When the Lawyer Knows the Client is Guilty: David Mellinkoff's 'The Conscience of a Lawyer', Legal Ethics, Literature, and Popular Culture


Michael Asimow


Stanford Law School

Richard Weisberg


Yeshiva University - Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law


UCLA School of Law Research Paper No. 06-44
Cardozo Legal Studies Research Paper No. 181

Abstract:     
David Mellinkoff's 1973 book 'The Conscience of a Lawyer' concerned a classic puzzle in legal ethics: what should a criminal defense lawyer do when the lawyer is certain that the client is factually guilty, but the client insists on an all-out defense? Mellinkoff focused on the Courvoisier case, a notorious English trial in 1840 in which defense counsel's tactics created an enormous public scandal. Legal ethicists have struggled with these issues ever since that time and they remain unresolved. This article draws a distinction between strong and weak adversarialism and explains how these two normative positions guide a lawyer's tactical decisionmaking in the certainly-guilty client situation. The article suggests that lawyers should have discretion to choose between the strong and weak positions, depending on context and their personal conscience. Both popular culture and great literature provide surprisingly interesting perspectives on the strong vs. weak adversarialism dilemma. Literature casts doubt on whether a lawyer can ever know with the requisite certainty whether a client is guilty. It presents numerous models of successful strong adversarialists and unsuccessful weak adversarialists. Few literary lawyers manage to be both skilled advocates and decent human beings. American popular culture, on the other hand, presents an emphatic answer to the question of what a lawyer with a certainly guilty client should do. According to pop culture, the lawyer's job is to betray the client to make sure the guilty criminal is convicted, dishonored, or killed. Pop culture's no-adversarialism model is a universe few lawyers would care to inhabit but which reflects popular views on the relationship of lawyering to truth.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 36

Keywords: Legal ethics, criminal law, guilty client situation, popular culture, Courvoisier case

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Date posted: November 30, 2006  

Suggested Citation

Asimow, Michael and Weisberg, Richard, When the Lawyer Knows the Client is Guilty: David Mellinkoff's 'The Conscience of a Lawyer', Legal Ethics, Literature, and Popular Culture. UCLA School of Law Research Paper No. 06-44; Cardozo Legal Studies Research Paper No. 181. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=948291 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.948291

Contact Information

Michael R. Asimow (Contact Author)
Stanford Law School ( email )
559 Nathan Abbott Way
Room 241
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States
650-723-2431 (Phone)
650-725-0253 (Fax)
Richard H. Weisberg
Yeshiva University - Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law ( email )
55 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10003
United States
212-790-0299 (Phone)
212-790-0205 (Fax)

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