Of Ambidexters and Daffidowndillies: Defamation of Lawyers, Legal Ethics, and Profession Reputation
64 Pages Posted: 19 Mar 2001
Date Written: January 9, 2001
Defamation has been a subject of considerable interest to legal historians. It did not become actionable in the royal courts until the early 16th century. As the secular cause of action for defamation developed, there were a number of actions instituted by lawyers. Defamation suits by lawyers accused of being ambidexters, the contemporary term for conflict of interest, constituted a large category of these lawyer defamation suits. Medieval discipline of lawyers for ambidexterity, a common form of lawyer misconduct, likely contributed to making these accusations actionable defamation. The purpose of this article is to study these defamation suits and their interrelationship with legal ethics, the public and professional images of lawyers, and professional reputation.
The article is divided into three parts. The first part studies 45 early modern defamation cases involving accusations of lawyers of ambidexterity. The discussion analyzes the initial and evolving defamatory language and its judicial treatment. The cases show that accusing a lawyer of being an ambidexter was clearly and unequivocally actionable as defamation and that nothing was more defamatory than charging a lawyer with disloyalty to a client. Moreover, the word, ambidexter, signified substantial opprobrium. The second part studies public and professional images of lawyers to understand why such an accusation and the word, ambidexter, were so clearly defamatory and had such substantial stigma . This portion first discusses the concept of a disloyal lawyer by exploring the existence of a loyalty norm in the common learning and inherited wisdom of the contemporary legal profession and by studying late medieval and early modern religious ideas and discourse, contemporary literary images, and more general social and political norms. The analysis then turns to a study of the word, ambidexter. The discussion begins with a history of the word and its legal use and then explores its religious and literary uses. The second portion concludes that the concept of disloyalty and the word, ambidexter, appeared often with in the usages of legal system, in religious discourse, and to portray lawyers as characters in literary works. All these usages likely created in the social and political milieu a very perjorative image of the disloyal lawyer and the ambidexter. Thus, these images contribute to the association of accusations of ambidexterity with serious profession opprobrium and help explain why they were so clearly and significantly defamatory. The final portion of the article notes that cultural changes and legal developments in the 16th and 17th centuries made professional reputation especially vulnerable to attack. Attitudes toward honor, an increasing importance of reputation, and changes within the legal profession combined to create a climate conducive to defamation suits against lawyers and to explain the beneficial nature of these suits to those accused of ambidexterity.
Keywords: Legal History, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession
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