Old Lady Lawyer: Spotlight On ‘Spotlight’

By Jill Switzer
March 2, 2016

The ratings were down for this year’s Oscar show, no surprise given the controversy about the lack of nominee diversity. It may well be that people without any connection to the movie industry or who don’t feast on tabloid Hollywood gossip could care less about the Oscars, that La-La land is exactly that. As host, Chris Rock was his usual take no prisoners self, but he did goof when he interviewed moviegoers in a town he called “Compton.” There aren’t any movie theaters in Compton, but “Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza” doesn’t have the same ring, and it may have been an indirect slap at the failure to include the movie “Straight Out Of Compton” in the best picture nominee category.

I watched the show for only one reason. I wanted the movie Spotlight to win best picture, and it did. Why? For several reasons: one, because the movie was beautifully written and acted, two, it told a story that some people still have trouble accepting to this day, and three, it shows the power of print journalism when it’s allowed to do (e.g. given the resources) to do what it does best, which is to tell the stories that need to be told, that can’t be told in two minute sound bites or by people ranting/interrupting each other while trying to get words in edgewise. Spotlight is the story of the Boston Globe’s investigative team, called Spotlight that in 2002 uncovered the pedophilia priest cover-up in the Boston archdiocese.

Aside from the usual “scumbag,” “how can you defend these people,” “a shill for the church,” comments by various reporters and editors, I thought that the movie spotlighted (pun intended) some ethical issues that lawyers face. A shout out to one of the reporters who, during a pre-publication discussion about the story, defended various lawyers, saying that they were only doing their jobs. Thank you.

I wondered (and let’s stipulate that I am no ethics expert, not even close) while watching it (and I’ve seen it three times) about the positions that various lawyers took in the movie and the ethical issues. Maybe they are questions that only a lawyer can love. Any ethical issues for the lawyer who settled cases for some victims in pre-litigation mediations? Any for the lawyer who represented the Boston Archdiocese?

Caveat: what I’m describing here is what the movie portrays. I have no idea how much is grounded in truth, but we can stipulate that dramatic license was taken; how much is not known.

Eric MacLeish represented some victims. At the Globe’s request, he met twice with the Spotlight editor and one of the reporters, who asked him about his representation of several victims some years past. He replied that he could not comment on what happened except in very general terms so as to not breach client confidentiality. All he would say is that the cases were handled in private mediations with church lawyers, and that he never filed any lawsuits on behalf of any client. He observed the rule that binds all of us: the requirement that we hold client confidences paramount. Trying to shame the lawyer, the reporter asked him how many cases does it take before something is said.

Subsequently, the reporters returned to talk with McLeish again, confronting him in the lobby of his office building, telling him that a bunch of lawyers are turning “child abuse into a cottage industry.” They push him to disclose information and he pushes right back, refusing to provide any information about his representations and tells them that he had supplied the Globe with a list of priests involved in the scandal some years back, that he needed then to go to the press to give weight to the claims. He says that the Globe never followed up. Did that lawyer breach the duty of confidentiality at that point?

Ethical issues also confronted Jim Sullivan, a lawyer for the Archdiocese. The Spotlight editor, Walter “Robby” Robinson, is a golfing pal of his. Early in the Globe’s investigation, Sullivan tells Robinson, “You know I can’t talk about it.”

As the Globe is about to publish the first story (one of hundreds the Globe published in 2002 about the sexual abuse scandal and the Church’s cover-up), the Globe needed confirmation that it had properly identified scores of priests who were involved in the scandal that went back for decades. Robinson visited Sullivan at Christmastime at his home to push him to provide that confirmation. Looking at a spreadsheet the reporters had prepared that contained the names of priests the Globe has identified, and only after an implicit internal struggle, Sullivan circled the name of every single priest, giving the Globe the confirmation it needed to print the story.

Whether that scene actually happened or whether inserted for dramatic effect, the issue remains: did the lawyer violate his duty of confidentiality to his client, the Boston Archdiocese? The broader issue: is there ever a situation where a lawyer’s obligation to society trumps the ethical duties under the rules? Do non-lawyers understand those duties? (See lawyer disparaging comments above.) When, if ever, does an obligation to society overweigh client confidentiality? Would any of the exceptions to client confidentiality have applied here? See ABA Model Rule 1.6 and the Comment to that Rule. (There’s also the issue of the Globe failing to follow up on the story some years before 2002, but that’s for journalists to ponder.)

Were lawyers complicit in the cover-up? What is the obligation of any lawyer to the larger world when children’s lives are forever changed by the criminal conduct of those they trusted? At what point in time does a lawyer have a duty to speak out? At what cost personally and professionally? Unintentionally, the movie Spotlight turns the spotlight on lawyer ethics.



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