Not long ago, I was reading some old Erle Stanley Gardner paperbacks, and noticed that, when Perry Mason first conferred with a client accused of murder, he usually gave them a spiel that went something like this:
“Tell me exactly what happened, the truth. If you say you’re innocent, I’ll fight to the bitter end for you. But if you’re guilty, tell me now, and I’ll get you the best deal I can.”
Now, as a law-abiding citizen, I find nothing objectionable in what Perry Mason told his clients. But I get the impression that, if a real-life lawyer gave that speech to a real-life client, the legal profession would be outraged. Most criminal defense attorneys don’t appear to WANT to know whether their clients are guilty, and don’t WANT to know the whole truth.
And most latter-day lawyers would be outraged by Perry Mason’s unwillingness to fight tooth and nail for the acquittal of a client he believed to be guilty. Most defense attorneys believe their job is to get their clients off the hook, by any means possible, and would be horrified by the suggestion that their only obligation to guilty clients was to negotiate for the lightest possible sentence. And, as a practical matter, very few criminals would be inclined to hire a lawyer who had such scruuples.
I realize that Perry Mason was not a real lawyer (Erle Stanley Gardner was… and I doubt whether he was quite as conscientious as his creation). Still, for decades, he embodied everything we’d LIKE to believe about criminal lawyers.
The question is, are his fictional scruples still deemed acceptable? Could any lawyer (no matter how capable) with his philosophy succeed in today’s legal world?