Yes, Stephen Glass Should Be Allowed to Practice Law

by Kevin Jon Heller

Please forgive the fact that this post has nothing to do with international law, but it’s something very personal and very important to me.  As Jonathan Adler noted today at Volokh Conspiracy, the California Supreme Court will soon decide whether Stephen Glass, the former New Republic journalist who was caught inventing stories, should be permitted to practice law:

Glass was fired by The New Republic and was generally shunned by the journalism world. He earned a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. But the New York State Bar blocked his attempt to practice law in that state, citing his ethical lapses, said Rachel Grunberg, an attorney with the California State Bar’s Office of General Counsel.

Glass moved to California and passed the bar exam here. But in 2009 the Committee of Bar Examiners declined to certify his moral fitness, noting, like New York, his history of lies. Glass then petitioned the State Bar Court’s hearing department, which disagreed with the committee and found the would-be lawyer had the necessary “good moral character.” The hearing officer declared Glass’ 22 supporting witnesses to be “outstanding” and credible.

The committee took the case to the three-judge review department, which in July, on a 2-1 vote, found that Glass had indeed rehabilitated his moral shortcomings and should be certified for admission to the Bar. Now the Committee of Bar Examiners has successfully asked the state Supreme Court to step in.

“In light of the serious misconduct that occurred, albeit a decade ago, [Glass] did not show in the commission’s eyes significant rehabilitation,” Grunberg said. “He just hasn’t shown that he holds those values that we hold dear.”

I have not seen Stephen in a while, but he and I were close friends for a number of years.  Knowing him as I do, I can only conclude that the Committee of Bar Examiners made up their mind to deny him a license long before they ever looked at the testimonials submitted on his behalf (I was not among the 22) — the testimonials that convinced the hearing department.  It is impossible to spend any amount of time with Stephen and not be convinced — completely and utterly convinced — that he deserves the opportunity to practice law.  I was very skeptical of Stephen when I first met him, but that didn’t last long.  I quickly realized that, in addition to being brilliant and witty and kind and supportive, Stephen was one of the most thoughtful, introspective, and self-aware people that I had ever met.  In the three or so years that he and I were friends, I never once heard him blame anyone but himself for his fall from grace.  I never once heard him make an excuse for what happened — and if you suggested to him that he was young and stupid and simply got in over his head, he would immediately disagree with you.  I never once heard him downplay the significance of his wrongdoing.  I never heard him say that Shattered Glass got his story wrong, as painful as it must have been for him to see his darkest moments splashed across the silver screen.  I never once heard him complain about working as a paralegal for iffy law firms with lawyers who couldn’t hold a candle to him, intellectually or legally.  And I never once heard him insist that he was rehabilitated and should be forgiven for his sins — to me, the most compelling indication that he was, in fact, rehabilitated.

American law practice is full of unethical lawyers.  Stephen Glass will not be one of them.  He does not deserve to have the rest of his life ruined for the terrible mistakes he made more than a decade ago.

9 Responses

  1. I think his friends at the New Republic had a very high opinion of him as well. Nothing you’ve said is particularly convincing given his talent for  persuading people of his honesty and sincerity. In fact, that was the New Republic’s defense for not detecting his fabrication (which he refers to as fabulism) sooner–they never saw it coming because they liked him so much. 

    If he can produce a therapist to say he’s grown a conscience, that would mean something. But a long list of fancy friends tells me he’s still good at self promotion.

  2. I agree KJH… with all the serial adulterers, bankrupts, tax cheats, etc. who are permitted to practice law in these United States a few instances of fake journalism — while wrong — should hardly be disqualifying — especially 10 years hence.
    The best way to rehab is not to jabber on about it, but to put nose to grindstone and work your ass off.  It sounds like Mr. Glass has done that.  So what if he has high profile friends?  Friends in low places aren’t necessarily any more ethical.
    I hope Glass is rehabbed and becomes an honest lawyer… Lord knows we need more of those.

  3. He fabricated in whole or part 27 stories.  He is the field of journalism’s Bernie Madoff.

  4. The thought occurred to that no lawyer would be disbarred for such conduct. Indeed inventing [non-perjurious] stories [plausible stories] is a revered part of the legal trade. I suppose Glass should be admitted and watched closely but that’s the supposed feature of the adversary system. Until the Bar associations beging tossing prosecutors, such as the New Orleans prosecutor, it cannot credibly not allow Glass a license. But Bar Associations and credibility are not naturally associated

  5. Without knowing all of the particulars, two comments.  First, I wonder about sgoldberg’s argument – requiring a therapist to evidence a conscience.  The law bar does not require psychiatric assessments, and while this may merit a saner group of lawyers, this has never been a required step towards becoming an advocate.  Also,  I suspect that even a ringing endorsement from a doctor would not persuade some people to pay Glass for his legal advice. Does that impact his ability to qualify as a lawyer?  The bar association must adopt an objective approach towards maintaining order and provide the process and procedure.  
    Glass wants to move forward.  I think this is a noteworthy quality that many lawyers never possess.  Second, I work best with analogies – when a country violates its multilateral trade obligations, that country must face an adjudicative body, and certain suspensions and concessions may be made.  However, that country is not ousted from the multilateral institutions, nor is faced with outright trade bans.  Balance is always a better way.

  6. I grant you that a psychiatric standard is not part of the test but that’s the sort of assurance I would personally need to have
    some confidence in Glass’s integrity. The most sacred ethical imperative in journalism is telling the truth, and Glass showed so much contempt for that value that he is now routinely studied in ethics courses as an example of how a confidence man deceived an entire publication. The man invented quotes about real people and organizations just to make his stories juicier and more entertaining.  He did this for two years, cooking up fake notes and documentation to avoid detection. That suggests a pretty deep-seated pathology to me. But if his wanting to move forward inclines you to support him, by all means do.

  7. sg,

    So what would Stephen have to do to deserve a license?  Or do you think he should be barred from practice for the rest of his life no matter what?  I’m genuinely curious.

  8. Ok one of my favourite professors once told me that a lawyer’s greatest response is, “It depends.”
    You ask for assurances, but that is akin to demanding confidence that a country will never violate its obligations, or that a marriage will never end in divorce.
    Rather than seek such assurances, wouldn’t be more productive to prepare with solid foundations (in this case, law degree + bar assessment exam) and proper consultation throughout a career?

  9. I articulated a common sense standard, and it was rejected. 
    He’s a brilliant guy who clearly has a love for for writing, performing
    and storytelling. There are many things he can do and do well. 
    Why he would want to submit himself to the sort of pressures that
    once proved his undoing is beyond me. I can appreciate the argument that if reformed murderers and bank robbers are admitted to the bar, why not Glass? Furthermore, there are probably any number of lawyers practicing who are unencumbered by a conscience so he’s not unique in that respect, assuming that was his problem. All I can say is: Don’t lose sight of the enormity and the seriousness of his past offenses simply because they occurred in a profession whose norms are different than yours. To make up imaginary people and have them demean real individuals because it makes a better story is not only
    morally reprehensible but it shows a lack of contact with reality. And to do that again and again and again? It boggles the mind.

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