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Editorial: Put an end to client-shaming

Election season is stupid season, here and elsewhere. Be glad it ended last month.

Here’s a plea to politicians and political types as they get ready for the next inevitable cycle: When a political candidate is a lawyer, he or she should not be subject to client-shaming, especially from another lawyer running for office.

Client-shaming is a cheap tactic that attempts to project the candidate’s clients, or those of his or her firm, onto the candidate. All their weaknesses, problems, imperfections and perceived negative characteristics become those of the candidate.

It is at bottom a cynical practice. Those who use it oversimplify the lawyer-candidate’s work. They conclude, essentially, that the general public is too dumb to know the difference.

Candidates from both parties are guilty of this cheesy maneuver. Republican Jerry Kilgore, in the 2005 race for governor, lambasted “liberal Tim Kaine,” the Democrat, for having represented violent criminals.

When Kaine was Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016, he was subjected to more of  the same, as GOP oppo research darkly intoned that Kaine had “spent his career defending rapists and murderers.” Gee, we wouldn’t want a guy like that in high office, would we?

That’s an example of trying to tie a candidate to unsavory low-life criminals. How about unsavory fat-cat, pig-dog corporate interests?

Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, went after the clients of his Republican opponent, John Adams, when the two men met for their first debate in June.

Herring said Adams “has been part of a powerful Richmond law firm for the last seven years, and he and his team brag about how they specialize in shielding people who are involved in kickbacks, pyramid schemes, embezzlement, money laundering, tax fraud, bribery, obstruction of justice.”

Adams, a former federal prosecutor, handles white-collar crime cases at McGuireWoods, where he is a partner.

The Herring campaign doubled down on this approach with an attack ad in August, saying, “John Adams is trying to hide the fact that he has personally profited by working to get big businesses, banks, and mortgage companies off the hook when they are accused of breaking the law and taking advantage of Virginians.”

The Herring campaign seemed keen to keep pounding this message until someone realized that, um, Herring’s Democratic ticket-mate, Justin Fairfax, worked at one of those firms, too.

Indeed, Fairfax, the candidate for lieutenant governor, was counsel at the Tysons Corner and DC offices of Venable LLP, a big firm which has a client roster full of big businesses, powerful people and what Herring might call “wealthy special interests.”

The Herring client-shaming effort quietly disappeared.

Every lawyer in this commonwealth is subject to the Rules of Professional Conduct. Those ethics rules require the lawyer to represent his or her clients zealously. Failure to do so gets the lawyer in trouble with the Virginia State Bar.

And the Constitution, in the Sixth Amendment, guarantees that a criminal defendant is entitled to a lawyer.

Candidates seeking the office of Attorney General sometimes mischaracterize the post they seek – the AG isn’t really Virginia’s “top cop,” for example. The AG basically is the managing partner of a large law firm that has one client — the commonwealth.

That’s hard to explain in a quick sound bite. But that doesn’t justify the resort to client-shaming or worse. Credit (or blame) an unsuccessful AG candidate for one of the dumbest ads ever, aired in the heat of a fall campaign some years back. The radio spot menacingly whispered that the man’s opponent “wasn’t even a member of the Virginia Bar Association!”

No doubt his campaign thought the gullible electorate wouldn’t know the difference between the VBA, which is a voluntary group, and the VSB, which is a mandatory state agency. The distinction likely was lost on the public, but the implication that the opponent wasn’t a licensed lawyer was clear.

Is it too much to ask lawyer-candidates to refrain from pandering attacks on other lawyer-candidates, and to stop oversimplifying the legal profession during a campaign?

Del. Greg Habeeb, R-Salem and a practicing trial lawyer in Roanoke, put it best in a tweet responding to Herring’s attack ad: “Lawyers are supposed to know better.”