Good Counsel

by Tim Junkin

Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

291 pages, 2001


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Ethical Ambivalence

Reviewed by Janice A. Farringer

 

Jack Stanton, the Washington lawyer who is the main character of Tim Junkin's new novel Good Counsel, begins his career as the legal everyman. He is an intelligent guy who went to law school for altruistic reasons, took a public interest, low paying job after graduation and ran smack into every lawyer's ingrained professional mandate to win. It didn't matter if the client were indigent, innocent, well-off, guilty, or deserving. He had to win for that client. In fact, that need to win may be the glory and the disgrace of the legal profession, because the line between winning with or without your ethics intact is very thin. Jack Stanton lost his bearings and lost that fine line and finally lost everything.

Junkin, a Washington, D.C. lawyer, has deftly defined within a good story one of the huge ethical traps of practicing law. How far do you go with a witness, in order to "help" him remember his story? How do you shape his testimony to assist in his own case? In the criminal law setting, if overdone, this is subornation of perjury and obviously illegal for both the suborner and the perjurer. Lying under oath is perjury. Lying a tiny bit for a good cause is perjury. Lying big time is perjury. The law makes no allowance for the ends justifying the means. The main character in Junkin's story takes us through his career in flashbacks to show us how easy it was to slip and where the slippage occurred. In the beginning he is a man with a mission; help the indigent criminal client have as decent a chance to win as the rich white-collar guy with the Johnny Cochran or the F. Lee Bailey. It seems OK in the heat of battle to invent a reason for this or that, but Jack wins and he lets it go. Over the years his conscience dulls. It gets easier and frankly more financially rewarding to remind clients of helpful testimony or "facts" they might need.

Leaving the public interest sector and entering private practice, Jack finds that the money follows the winners. If you help things along and still "do good" then aren't you still a winner? Not quite. This isn't a word game, it is ethics and all attorneys swear to uphold the legal standards that make the court system work. And the only reason the court system works is because people think it does. When the attorneys skid on the ethics, who knows whether justice has a chance? Jack practices as half of the fledgling firm of Stanton & Bonifant. Jack wins his first seven-figure verdict and gets used to the glory.

Success and wealth are intoxicating drafts to those not used to them. They vindicate the actions that bring them about. They're society's measure of virtue.

In Good Counsel, Jack has a malevolent prosecutor with an equally dirty record gunning for him. There is a girl with a murky past who commits her own aiding and abetting of a fugitive and gets away with it. There is a fuzzy international connection with an assassin from Nicaragua. And there is too much reliance by the author on a seemingly minor, inside the beltway event to move the story along. Any reader outside of D.C. might be puzzled by the ending's media-precipitated plot twist.

What makes Good Counsel worthy of note is that Junkin raises ethical questions through a believable legal character. It is rare to find a fair examination of the difficulties of practicing law ethically. More often we are exposed to the seemingly unethical behavior of attorneys who win by playing this card or that card in the glare of media hype. The choices made by everyday lawyers are just as difficult and not as well rewarded. The ease with which Jack Stanton falls is the lesson of Good Counsel. The difficulty he has recognizing his downward slide along the way is the dilemma. Jack Stanton finds his answer in the pause afforded by his accumulated ambivalence. Time to think is his cure.

I recommend Good Counsel. The author, Tim Junkin, is a practicing lawyer who lives near Washington, D.C. This is his second book. I look forward to his next. | July 2001

 

Janice A. Farringer is a writer and creative writing teacher living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.