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Harry Sondheim Professional Responsibility Award goes to staunch ethics advocates

By Psyche Pascual
Staff Writer

Don’t ask Brian C. Walsh whether he worries that lawyers get a bad rap.

Just think of the T-rex that feasted on the attorney in Steven Spielberg’s film “Jurassic Park” – as movie audiences cheered – and you get a sense of how far the legal profession’s image has plummeted, said Walsh, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge.

Pasternak Goodman Walsh
Pasternak Goodman Walsh

It was difficult enough to overcome the stain that Watergate left on the shiny image of American legal advocates (think Atticus Finch). But by the 1990s, “nasty lawyer jokes were all the rage,” Walsh said. Then when an ABA study indicated that regard for lawyers had sunk to its lowest point ever, Walsh realized he needed to start rebuilding the profession from the inside. As then president of the Santa Clara County Bar Association, Walsh introduced and succeeded in getting the association to adopt its first Code of Professionalism in 1992.

As the code’s chief architect, he believed that formalizing a policy of ethics and professionalism would encourage lawyers to be more civil in their practices – and ultimately “the way to regain respect is start showing respect for each other … and to everyone we encountered,” he said.

This year, the State Bar of California deviated from its usual practice and selected not one, but two members of the legal community to be honored with the Harry Sondheim Professional Responsibility Award for 2016. This year’s recipients are Walsh and Sacramento attorney Karen M. Goodman, a Sacramento attorney whose activities include serving on the State Bar’s Board of Trustees. Both have a history of promoting professionalism and ethical conduct in their practices and in their work to advance civility.

Walsh’s code served as the foundation for a set of guidelines on professionalism and civility for the State Bar of California, which Walsh later helped fashion under the bar’s Attorney Civility Task Force. In 2014, civility became part of the State Bar oath that lawyers take to become an attorney.

As a graduate from the Boalt School of Law at University of California Berkeley in 1972, he always had high ideals for practicing law. He worked at the Legal Aid Society of Monterey County and later moved to private practice as managing partner of McTernan, Stender, Walsh, Weingus & Tondreau. After the Code of Professionalism was adopted by the Santa Clara County Bar Association in 1992, Walsh worked to make sure it didn’t gather dust on a shelf.

The code was posted in each courtroom in the county. Copies went to each judge and private law firm. Walsh encouraged private law firms to adopt the code and name a person within each firm who could oversee complaints of attorneys’ uncivil behavior.

“Each judge on the state and federal level received a copy of the Code,” said Risë Jones Pichon, presiding judge for the Santa Clara Superior Court, who supported Walsh’s nomination for the Sondheim award. “He sought to have the Code distributed to each law firm whose members engaged in the practice of law in this county, which he accomplished. … He asked that law firms individually adopt the Code. He was also successful in this endeavor.”

Walsh “never misses an opportunity when speaking to our new admitted to encourage them to understand their professional responsibility to ethical and civil conduct and conform their behavior to the Code,” said Christine Burdick, president of the Santa Clara County Bar Association.

Ever since he was appointed judge in 2000, Walsh made sure the code was not forgotten at his workplace. He still has a copy of the code on the wall of his chambers, and he still explains the code to jurors in his courtroom so that they understand the standards that attorneys should live by.

“It’s part of the effort to make sure professionalism stays at the forefront,” he said. “Twenty-four years ago, we created a code for ourselves. We created it so we could live it.”

Karen M. Goodman

It was 1999 when Sacramento attorney Karen M. Goodman confronted an ethical dilemma that altered her life.

After reporting what she considered an ethics breach to senior managers, she was surprised to have those concerns ignored. In fact, she was told to disregard the behavior, and nothing was done to prevent other similar ethics breaches from happening, she said. Her answer was to promptly resign and work for another firm.

“I felt powerless. I felt voiceless,” said Goodman, who was then a member of the State Bar’s Committee on Professional Responsibility and Attorney Conduct (COPRAC). “I wish that there had been action taken that would send the message that the firm would not tolerate ethical lapses.”

Goodman’s personal experience became a case study in how not to handle an ethics breach. But it also propelled her into activities that would later include serving on the State Bar’s Board of Trustees and the Committee of Bar Examiners, where she could make a difference in ethics reform. Because of resources like the bar’s Ethics Hotline and the numerous ethics opinions on the bar website, lawyers today have more resources than ever.

A graduate of Hastings College of the Law, Goodman is lauded by colleagues on the State Bar board as well as organizations on which she’s served. She was named a “Super Lawyer” of Northern California and one of the Best Lawyers in American (in real estate) for three years in a row.

For Goodman, practicing civility includes disclosing critical information to other attorneys as well as being ethical. “My word is my bond. I definitely think ‘gotcha’ lawyering should not be tolerated,” she said. “I was that beginning lawyer that didn’t know how to ask the question. I certainly don’t want the lawyer on the other side trying to take advantage of this.”

In addition to her activities on State Bar committees, including chairing the Discipline Standards Task Force, Goodman has served as a visible and active role model for other women attorneys. She was past president of Women Lawyers of Sacramento and California Women Lawyers, and board member of Women Bar Associations. She has spoken publicly about obstacles women face in law and creating a work-life balance.

Carol M. Langford, a former COPRAC chairwoman and Walnut Creek attorney who sits on COPRAC’s Commission for the Revision of the Rules of Professional Conduct, said Goodman still finds compassion in her dealings with attorneys.

“Despite their problematic backgrounds, she has always treated them with respect. She listens to their answers and considers all aspects of their character,” Langford wrote supporting Goodman’s nomination for the Harry B. Sondheim Award for Professionalism. “I think the way she treats everyone is important, especially for young people who are new in the practice to see and emulate.”

Goodman said she was “stunned” to learn she’d gotten the Sondheim award. Previous winners like Harry Sondheim and Paul Vapnek were honored and had already retired after contributing a body of ethics work. But Goodman isn’t yet ready to call it quits.

“I think I have a few more years left in me to hopefully contribute in the field of ethics,” she said.