When bad clients happen to good lawyers

Yesterday, lawyer Jay Sekulow appeared on Fox News Sunday to defend President Donald Trump.  It did not go well for him.  (The real fun starts around the 3:00 mark.)

From all indications, Sekulow’s appearances on other Sunday-morning interview shows didn’t go much better, and twitter’s blue checkmarks piled on:

The thing is, while Sekulow may have come across like Eugene Levy in Armed and Dangerous, the guy undeniably has some serious skills as a lawyer:

All told, Sekulow came off a bit like a Washington novice, which he’s definitely not. His face and his name are well known in the nation’s capital and among conservatives generally — but not for this kind of work. He’s an experienced litigator on behalf of conservative causes, especially causes dear to the religious right. White-collar defense lawyers, particularly those who defend political figures, form a small community in Washington, and Sekulow is not part of it.

Sekulow made his first big Washington debut in 1987 in the Supreme Court when he helped the evangelical group Jews for Jesus defeat a measure that banned the distribution of religious literature at Los Angeles International Airport.

His performance was unimpressive, American Lawyer magazine wrote at the time. Sekulow was “rude and aggressive,” the publication wrote, “so nervous that at times he appeared nearly out of control.”

Fortunately for Sekulow, it was an easy case to win. The ordinance barred “First Amendment activity” at the airport, presenting clear constitutional problems. And win Sekulow did — in a unanimous decision striking down the measure.

“I left the courtroom feeling like the Beatles must have felt leaving Shea Stadium,” he wrote in 2005.

The victory turned Sekulow, a self-described Messianic Jew, into a crusader for religious expression and a celebrity on the Christian right, a status that has only grown since then. Over three decades, he built a legal and media empire by representing religious groups, antiabortion advocates and other conservative organizations in high-profile court battles.

With televangelist Pat Robertson, Sekulow launched the American Center for Law and Justice — a conservative response to the American Civil Liberties Union — which litigates evangelical causes, often with great success. He has appeared before the Supreme Court on 11 other occasions and has filed numerous amicus briefs in cases related to civil liberties.

Even with Robertson’s backing, you don’t make it before the Supreme Court 11 times without being really good at your job.  Agree or disagree with his political and legal positions, Sekulow has a history of being a very effective advocate.

So what went wrong yesterday? It looks like Sekulow made a few mistakes often made by lawyers, though rarely with so many people watching:

1. He is trying to practice law in a legal area with which he has no experience.  Sekulow may be a skilled constitutional lawyer, especially for religious-freedom cases, but he seems hopelessly out of his depth in defending the President from impeachment or even possible criminal charges.

2. He is way too emotionally attached to his client.  Lawyers, like doctors, have to maintain some degree of professional distance from their clients.  You must advocate for their position in keeping with the law and professional decorum, but taking cases too personally can lead to smuggling drugs to a jailed client, or even providing support to terrorist organizations.

Like a depressing number of religious-right figures, Sekulow has practically sold his soul to Donald Trump.  A man who has never lived up to their personal standards, and is a latecomer to their political views, is now the great savior who got them a conservative Supreme Court Justice and promises more victories to come.

Trump’s approval rating is at 38.8% and falling, but he still has the true believers in his corner.  And they seem so personally invested in their hero that they’ll do anything for him, even making themselves look ridiculous and incompetent on television.

Serious question: has anyone ever done business with Donald Trump and come out better for the experience?  Anyone?

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