Professor Nancy B. Rapoport

Learn legal ethics from the movies?  Surely you jest!  But that’s exactly what some 200 area lawyers did at the third annual Frank W. Koger Bankruptcy Symposium held in the Whittaker Courthouse on May 14. And in addition, they learned more about the bankruptcy cases that have been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Utilizing snippets from movies ranging from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “My Cousin Vinny,” University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Professor Nancy B. Rapoport demonstrated the good, the bad and the ugly of Hollywood’s characterization of legal ethics.   While some movies and TV shows about lawyers get the ethics right, she noted that “some don’t bear any relationship to reality at all.” 

Unfortunately, clients and the public “know” about lawyers and how they behave from what they see, hear and read, including movies and television shows along with the usual lawyer jokes, Prof. Rapoport said.  And she worries about how terribly wrong Hollywood portrays legal ethics issues – from showing the first-year law student representing a client (“Legally Blonde”), to the crimes committed by lawyers (Paul Newman’s character in “The Verdict”), to multiple ethics violations (“every TV lawyer show since ‘Matlock’”).

Lawyer ethics aren’t that hard to get, Prof. Rapoport pointed out – for most things, a lawyer could think back to the rules he or she learned in kindergarten about how to behave.  “You already know how to do the right thing,” she said.  Lawyers already know the rules:

  • Know your client.
  • Know the ethics rules that apply to you.
  • Don’t lie.
  • Remember your obligations as an officer of the court.
  • Avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Be diligent and competent, and don’t churn fees or be abusive.
  • Communicate.

Professor Kenneth N. Klee
Kenneth N. Klee, a professor at the UCLA School of Law and one of the most prominent bankruptcy lawyers in America, had the bad luck (or timing) of following Prof. Rapoport to the podium to talk about his recent

book, “Bankruptcy and the Supreme Court,” in which he discusses the Supreme Court’s handling of bankruptcy cases from Sturges v. Crowninshield, the 1819 ruling by Chief Justice John Marshall upholding Congress’s authority to pass bankruptcy laws, to the Northern Pipeline case in 1982 declaring unconstitutional the Bankruptcy Code’s pervasive grant of jurisdiction to non-Article III judges.

Klee has been a central figure in the development of U.S. bankruptcy law since the 1970s, when he served as a staff attorney for the Senate Judiciary Committee and assisted in the drafting of the 1978 Bankruptcy Code.  He was a contributing editor to Collier on Bankruptcy from 1979 until 1996, and from 1992 to 2000 was a member of the Advisory Committee on Bankruptcy Rules of the United States Judicial Conference.  He has spoken at hundreds of bankruptcy workshops and seminars, though it’s unlikely he has had to follow a showing of comedic movie excerpts at the podium. In “Bankruptcy and the Supreme Court,” Klee examines the substantive bankruptcy cases that have been decided by the Supreme Court, and he also explores how the justices go about deciding cases, from granting certiorari to applying the rules of statutory construction.

Klee does not sugarcoat reality in his book.  For example: “It may … be true that at least some of the justices appear to be unfamiliar with and devote less attention to bankruptcy cases,” he writes.  One justice has “acknowledged that bankruptcy cases are complicated and the justices do not understand them very well; they answer these questions narrowly by taking small steps to avoid doing too much damage.”  

The symposium, which was free to all lawyers and was followed by a barbecue luncheon, was once again a great hit with practitioners in the Western District.  Even the judges’ panel discussion and Q&A following the outside speakers received high ratings!

Rick Fink, Jerry Phillips and the WDMO Bankruptcy Judges respond to questions from moderator Sherri Wattenbarger.



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